Thursday, April 16, 2009

Book Review: Essex County - Tales From the Farm

Essex County Vol. 1: Tales from the Farm
Jeff Lemire

Following the death of his mother, ten-year-old Lester moves in with his Uncle Ken on his Ontario farm. Lester never knew his father, and his relationship with his uncle is awkward and uneasy. Lester chooses to escape from his grief through fantasies of superheroes, even going so far as wearing a cape and mask and imagining himself flying and defending the farm from alien invaders. Ken, a down to earth farmer, just can’t understand.

Instead, Lester forms a friendship with Jimmy. Jimmy had been a professional hockey player, until a head injury halfway through his first game ended his career. Now he works at the local gas station, and bonds with Lester over comics and his fantasies. Ken isn’t entirely comfortable with this, but is it just for the obvious reason that it seems inappropriate for a grown man to be playing with a ten-year-old boy?

In Tales from the Farm, Jeff Lemire presents a thoughtful, understated character study. Through his depiction of small moments, he speaks volumes about the relationships between the characters, like when Lester turns down the chance to watch a hockey game on TV with his uncle, only to go and watch it by himself in his room. He definitely shows more than he tells, which is especially appropriate in a visual medium like graphic novels.

To readers who are most familiar with graphic novels through the colorful, slickly-drawn tales of superheroes, Jeff Lemire’s artwork may initially appear rough and unpolished. In truth, the art does a fantastic job of communicating the emotion of the characters through expression and body language. It also creates a definite sense of place, giving the reader a clear sense of the environment Lester finds himself in.

While there is a mystery that is subtly unraveled here, Tales from the Farm is not about that. It’s about loneliness and sadness and regret. It’s quiet and melancholy, but ultimately redemptive.

The one thing that keeps me from embracing this book wholeheartedly is the third act. While the action in that part of the book is clear and easy to follow, it’s less clear how literally the reader is meant to take events. And without that context, it’s difficult to fit those events into the overall story.

Having said that, this is the first volume of a trilogy, and the only one I have read so far. As I understand it, the stories are relatively self-contained, but still connected. So my lingering questions from this volume may yet be answered. Stay tuned.

Despite my questions, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick read that provides some deep, thought-provoking character insights. I am definitely looking forward to reading the next two volumes in this acclaimed trilogy.

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