Sunday, October 30, 2016

Irmina by Barbara Yelin

Barbara Yelin's Irmina is a graphic novel reconstructing the author's grandmother's life during WWII. In 1934, Irmina leaves her family in Germany to train as secretary in London and falls in love with Howard, an Oxford student from Barbados. The story unspools from there as Irmina, forced to leave London because of the war, is drawn into the Nazi machinery, first as secretary, then as the wife of an architect employed by the regime.
The book is based on journals and letters, and Yelin's drawings recreate scenes in gorgeous detail. Some of her two page spreads, like the one pictured here, are so beautiful they could stand on their own, and her vignettes have beautiful movement to them. Her drawings are much closer to artful sketches than comic book frames, and I found myself getting lost in them for pages on end and forgetting to read the words (especially the letter excerpts which are recreated in spidery script beneath some of the frames).

When we first meet Irmina, she is bold and brave. She stands up to men at parties, falls in love with a black man, and seems to recognize and stand up to the strains of misogyny and racism surrounding her; after her sudden return to Germany that force seems to slowly seep out of her. She initially questions the promises being made by the Nazis, but her resolve is slowly broken, and we are supposed to see how a person, even a fundamentally good person, can break under the weight of a totalitarian regime. My one struggle with the book was how hard that transition was to believe. Because we don't have much internality (just snippets of letters and flashes of facial expression), we are left to intuit what's happening to Irmina.

The book ends with a reunion, one that forces us to consider all the paths untravelled. There are small flashes of hope and redemption, but despite it's aesthetic beauty, there is a deep, abiding sadness throughout. It's not hard to read like other WW2 narratives--it doesn't focus on the massive horrors of the Holocaust or the sweeping violence of war--but the smallness of the scope makes it differently devastating.

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