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"Tangled, but with spots of brightness."
on March 6, 2012
Tangles is equal parts celebration and lament, as much an anatomy of Alzheimer's as it is an intensely moving matremoir. Reading Tangles had me reliving many of the details of my mom's last years, and remembering the frustrations, the moments of fierce anger, the depressions, the sparks of humour, the exhaustion, and the closeness and caring which her slow regression and death brought to our family.
Alzheimer's is a disease of diminishment and indignity, and part of Sarah Leavitt's triumph is that she doesn't shy away from showing the darker parts of the process. Nor does she hide the dark snakes of depression, fear, and pettiness which attack her and other family members. She also shows how the disease often makes small children of patient and caregivers, and the immediacy and cartoon quality of her graphic narrative medium work wonderfully to reach the child in us all. Her telling has a vulnerability and a visceral impact which written text alone could not achieve.
As a graphic memoir, and one in which recognition and acceptance of the author's lesbian identity play a part, Leavitt's book will inevitably be compared to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Midge Leavitt, though, was much more nurturing, much less conflicted than Bruce Bechdel; and consequently Tangles is much less dark than Fun Home. Both books pay tribute, but where Bechdel remembers her father to map herself Leavitt remembers her mother to grow and nurture. Unsurprisingly, both books can be seen as mirroring the respective parent described. Whereas the art and language of Fun Home is carefully crafted and highly polished, Tangles is rougher and looser in style, a garden, "tangled, but with spots of brightness."
Tangles also bears comparison to important Alzheimer's books such as John Bayley's Elegy for Iris, Lisa Genova's Still Alice, and Michael Ignatieff's Scar Tissue. Like these books, it is a good story well told. Like these books, it belongs in every library, not just in those of Alzheimer's afflicted families.