Irmina Hardcover – April 12, 2016
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About the Author
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Barbara Yelin came across her grandmother's diary and was fascinated by both her story and how she changed. In the early 1930s, German-born Irmina is living in London and taking classes to be a foreign secretary. Her world is expanded when she meets a young black man from Barbados who is studying at Oxford. She fights against discrimination on his behalf and slowly falls in love. After Hitler has been in power a few years, her family has a set back and can't keep sending her money. She returns to Germany. And before and during the war, she changes. For the worse.
It is impressive that Ms. Yelin was able to look at and portray her family with such searing honesty. Her grandmother had some bad luck but also made a number of bad choices and rough moral compromises. It shows how average Germans were complicit by both their willful ignorance and accepting silence. There are a few scenes that illustrate how regular Germans benefited from Jews "disappearing."
There is an outstanding essay by a historian at the end of the book that ties up the story with historical context and analysis. It makes an already fantastic story that much greater. Despite living in historical times, people's lives are marked by graduation, first job, first apartment, marriage, births and deaths. This story depicts all of those events with the backdrop of the German fall.
The story is brilliantly crafted: with just a few words the author conjures up characters so real that you think you know them and the illustrations, perfectly evocative of their time, are so beautiful that any panel could be framed and appreciated as a standalone piece of art.
The story and pictures together weave a mesmerising spell that enchants and informs - the graphic novel at its absolute best.
I read the book on Kindle, which I don't advise, as it doesn't do justice to the wonderful artwork and was extremely frustrating to pinch the images open and closed in order to see detail - at time of writing it's not available on Comixology. I'm looking forward to receiving the print version.
I have no doubt that Irmina will go down as one the the greatest graphic novels of all time.
Top international reviews
The story though, started well, with strong scenes and dialogue that really allowed me to get a feel for the characters and their attitudes and emotions. Yelin is very good at drawing facial expressions and presenting moods in her scenery. I really enjoyed the first part and had high hopes for the rest of the story. However, I did feel a bit let down by later parts. They felt rushed and more summarised, with large time-skips and less obvious character development through certain events or interactions, and instead more through a sense of the years piling on and the mood gradually sinking into a kind of bitterness. The later parts were much more specifically about the political changes going on in Germany and through the war, than character development and interaction. As important as the historical context is, I'm not sure it should have been prioritised so much over story and characters, but needed to be blended more. There are glimpses of the horrors happening in Berlin to Jewish shopkeepers, the propaganda, the rumours and ignored knowledge of what was really happening. And these are important and valuable, but I think the heavy focus on trying to show what was going on while Irmina tried to ignore it and protect her son from it made the story suffer in terms of its characterisation and scene-crafting. I wanted to know more about how Irmina got together with her husband when they didn't seem to have much of a connection to each other, and more about her relationship with her son and friend. I also wanted some kind of parallel of what Howard was experiencing or thinking during part 2, from the perspective of someone with very different goals in life, but still living in places where what was going on in Germany during the war was very relevant. Really, I think I just wanted to know more about Howard, full-stop. I think, in a sort of life-being-wasted way, the rushed-ness sort of worked, as it reflects Irmina's mood well, but it took the rich story and character development established in the first part and then became more vague. I definitely just wanted more in there and felt the second and third parts were weaker in comparison to the first part because of that.
I liked what the ending tried to achieve though, and the contrast of Howard's happy old age to Ermine's bitter and depressed one, and how realistic it felt that Irmina would believe that meeting Howard again might change her life somehow. That strong sense of regret felt very true to her, and true to the story-seeking people we are: we want to live happy endings, and for things to have happened or been lost for a purpose, for life not to pick up briefly and then to go back to its regular ennui, we want to be changed and we want to feel, especially if we've not allowed ourselves to feel for a long time. And this graphic novel certainly carries a weight of those complex emotions with it. It's an unusual look at the life of ordinary Germans during a complicated time, and the conflicts and regrets that come with hindsight.
The commentary and analysis at the end of the graphic novel is also important to read, I think. It analyses some of the scenes and draws out details that I certainly missed, and added more to the historical context and intended characterisation of Irmina, as well as expounding a little on the source material that this story is based on.
It's really the artwork that stands out for me though. It's a truly beautiful graphic novel, with a lot of care gone into not only telling a story in pictures, but filling it with history and atmosphere and so many details you'll probably notice something new every time you read it. The cover itself is beautiful, too, and wonderfully conveys that comparison between the life Irmina could have had, and then did have, with the reflection showing the darker realities of Irmina's life. It's not something immediately noticable, but it's clever artistic layouts like that and the little emotional nuances that go with them that really show how talented Yelin is as an artist.
The book is beautiful and sad. A must have.