Friday, 8 January 2010

The eye of every storm - Von Allan's 'The Road to God Knows...'

Von Allan’s debut graphic novel The Road to God Knows deals with the author’s experiences of growing up with a mother suffering from schizophrenia. Instead of taking the tried and tested route of straight autobiography, Allan has chosen to create a work of fiction that's closely informed by his own experiences. Casting the 13 year old Marie as his lead allows him a certain distance from his subject matter, and whilst this is clearly a highly personal book, it benefits greatly from this approach. Never once did I find myself gritting my teeth because the book was overwrought or too self obsessed.

By using Marie as his main vehicle, Alan limits the amount of information the reader has access to, keeping the emphasis very much on Marie’s world as she perceives it. Events and experiences are all magnified though the lens of adolescence, making the emotional turmoil that Marie faces all the more immediate. As a result, The Road to God Knows is a focused yet strangely blinkered reading experience; we never learn the full extent of Marie’s mother’s illness, nor are we privy to any of the medical ins and outs of her schizophrenia. It might have been beneficial to gain some deeper insight into the mental disorder that sits at the heart of the book, but in many ways, this is very much in keeping with Marie’s perspective, focusing squarely on the social and emotional fallout that begins to spill over into her everyday life.

Setting out how a thirteen year girl deals with the ramifications of her mother's schizophrenia is a difficult task in itself, and Allan takes an even handed, almost observational approach, sketching out events but rarely delving beneath the surface to reveal the inner workings of his characters. The overriding impression is that even Marie doesn’t fully comprehend the extent of her mother’s condition, only that her life is very different to that of her peers.

Reading The Road to God Knows is a little like sitting in the eye of a storm, gazing out at the damage and debris that surrounds you, yet safe in the knowledge that you’re momentarily sheltered from the destructive forces responsible. We’re privy to the impact that Marie’s mother’s schizophrenia has on her life, but very rarely do we see the storm itself. In all but a few key scenes everything is internalised, and this has as much to do with her mother’s private battle with her own demons, as it does with Marie’s ability to fully process the events occurring around her. What's good is that Allan leaves more than enough space for you to draw your own conclusions, resisting the temptation to hammer home his message with the blunt implements of cheap melodrama and tragedy.

In Marie’s world simple joys become precious to the point of obsession. She seeks solace in wrestling magazines and televised matches. Her fascination with the wrestling duo The Northern Rockers serves as both an escapist fantasy and a symbol of her sexual awakening. When, early on in the book, she learns that her wrestling heroes are due to pass through town, getting the cash together to attend the event becomes a driving force in her life. Wrestling and her close friends are the grounding forces that tether Marie to something approaching a balanced existence.

It’s interesting to note that Allan chooses wrestling as a focal point for Marie. It's one which serves as both a cultural calling card for the 80s as well as a fitting metaphor for the book’s subject matter. Wrestling, after all, is a sport that deals in split personalities; the high theatre of the 'on stage' alter ego vs. the normal person who exists outside the ring. Wrestling here seems to function as a sanitised socially accepted form of conflict, providing a stark contrast to the domestic unrest that Marie has to face in her day to day life. In the end it’s wrestling that offers a salvation of sorts, an affirmation that Marie can lead a normal life, indulging in the same pastimes that regular teenagers do. Her future is left wide open, riddled with uncertainty, but not without the spectre of hope looming just over the horizon.

The Road to God Knows depicts the all too common battle of getting from A to B under difficult circumstances, clinging all the while to every remaining thread of normality. The book feels like a small piece of a far larger history, and much like being granted a fleeting glimpse into someone else’s life, it’s an all too brief examination of a series of incredibly complex social issues. Historically, mental illness has been a subject that’s frequently discussed in hushed tones, and despite its brevity The Road to God Knows gets its point across with clarity and conviction.

Although Allan’s work still has hints of the fledgling artist to it, this is solid stuff. His style of clear line art, coloured with soft watercolours is more than capable of carrying his story, and with the exception of some slightly ill considered page layouts and a few instances of exaggerated body language his art gets the job done. If anything, it's his characters facial expressions that let him down, veering from slightly wooden to too overstated. Admittedly, these are fairly minor quirks, quirks that will no doubt be ironed out as Allan continues to develop as a cartoonist.

Taken as a whole, this is a strong debut told with unflinching honesty and a genuine desire to educate.

You can download The Road to God Knows as a free PDF here, or alternately it can be purchased from Amazon should you wish to show your support. More information on Von Allan can be found on his website here.

Review by Matthew Dick.