Graphic Lit: Tamara Drewe
For decades, cartoonist Rosemary “Posy” Simmonds has been regaling U.K. readers with her sharp, sly satires of middle to upper-middle class British life.
Little of her work has reached American audiences, the sole exception being 2005’s stellar “Gemma Bovary,” a modern reworking of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”
Her latest graphic novel, “Tamara Drewe,” finds Simmonds drawing upon classic literature once again; this time with Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.”
You don’t need to be familiar with Hardy’s novel to appreciate Simmonds’ update, nor do you need to be familiar with British life in general. Despite the occasional slang and Euro-reference, Simmonds’ characters are fully dimensional and completely recognizable.
The book is set in a bucolic countryside writer’s retreat, headed by the famous author Nicholas Hardiman. This seemingly idyllic milieu is turned upside-down, however, by the return of former local girl Tamara Drewe.
Newly confident with a nose job and newspaper gossip column, Drewe goes about unintentionally wreaking havoc, having affairs with displaced rock stars, Hardiman and others, while the caretaker she knew from her pre-surgery days quietly pines for her.
This being based on a Hardy book, it isn’t too long before tragedy strikes not once but twice, though some folks do manage to find a degree of happiness by the end.
The story is told from a variety of perspectives, both in diary and journal excerpts as well as dialogue and panels.
Just about every major and supporting character gets their say, from Hardiman’s long-suffering wife, to an insufferable American novelist forever working on his next book to a pair of bored teen girls, one of whom has an unhealthy fixation on the rock star Tamara is dating.
Simmonds gets several sharp digs in comparing the lives of the well-to-do writers and city folk who come to the country looking to “get away from it all” and the poorer country folk who “have to live here.”
Issues of class and snobbery linger tantalizingly in the background, as does the public’s unhealthy fixation with celebrity tabloid scandals.
Simmonds’ art is delightful throughout.
She has a real gift for body language and her use of watercolors (light blue for flashbacks or to denote a chilly winter scene) give the book an added emotional heft.
And though “Drewe” is loaded with text and dialogue it never feels overly busy or overburdened.
“Tamara Drewe” might sound a bit too dry and literary for some. But if anything it’s astoundingly down-to-earth, focusing on the concerns of real people and their messy lives.
Incisive, funny and touching, it’s one of the best graphic novels you’ll read this year.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008