the road to god knows…
Written and drawn by Von Allan
Von Allan Studio, paperback, 141 pages, black & white
Available as a digital copy for free here
This debut graphic novel by Canadian artist Von Allan depicts the day-to-day life of a teenage girl, Marie, dealing with the regular ups and downs of a teenage life with the added complication of a mother with schizophrenia. Overall I think it’s a really interesting read and might be particularly good for young relatives of people with severe mental illness.
Though really quite timeless in its subject matter and narrative, the road to god knows… is set in mid-80s Ottawa (apparently – this is based on the wrestling references in the story, though I can’t vouch for this myself!) Marie is probably aged around 13 or 14, although this is not explicitly stated in the book itself either. Again, this ambiguity about Marie’s age is also an attribute as it adds to the sense of universality of the story being told – aspects of Marie could be any child dealing with the drama of teenage life, but also, particularly, the reality of a parent with a severe psychiatric illness. On the other hand, this is not to say that Marie is a bland, anonymous character. She is far from one-dimensional and comes across as a well-rounded person with a distinct personality and (very keen!) interests. This is a definite benefit as it not only compels you to continue reading – you really do want to know what happens to her – but also makes this less of a ‘teaching moment’ about families and mental illness, and feel like more of a natural story, only one facet of which is schizophrenia. So in a sense it manages to do two almost contradictory things at the same time: tell a compelling personal story with a realistic central character who is distinctly individual while drawing out themes that are beyond just one character and speak to more general experiences such as growing up and living with a severely mentally ill relative.
The artwork itself is highly detailed and quite movie-like; the narrative and images flow smoothly in sequence. The panels themselves are reasonably regular and the story works its way through them easily and naturally. The addition of small chapter breaks also help give a sense of time passing which makes working out what’s happening easier. The pages are easy to read and you can work out what’s going on with little effort, so it’s not complicated in terms of layout, which, given the importance of this story, is an asset. That said, it’s not boring to look at. Allan uses curved panels to make the page more interesting and this adds to the sense of roundness which echoes the way he draws his characters. This roundedness also means the artwork gels well with the subject as the curves add a sense of youthfulness. The backgrounds and details in the panels also significantly assist the evocation of place and situation – the sparseness of the interiors of Marie and her mother’s house adds to the sense of their poverty and isolation. One criticism would be that some of the close-ups of extreme facial expression or body language don’t always fit perfectly with the narrative or dialogue, so they can be a bit startling or confusing. A further personal gripe is the occasional bolded word in the bubbles, which works some of the time to add emphasis but occasionally makes the dialogue a bit clunky. Overall, I enjoyed the artwork and I think it works well with the story it’s telling.
In terms of the story itself, I think this is a really great book that effectively captures the confusion and uncertainty of having a family member with a severe mental illness. This is also compounded by the fact that Marie is still just a teenager struggling to navigate a fairly unpredictable life with her mother, Betty, being in and out of hospital and behaving in ways that shock and upset Marie. Because the story is told from Marie’s perspective the flow of information, and the revelation of the severity of Betty’s condition, isn’t in some massive reveal but is in a slow drip-feed. The reader has only limited information to begin with until the story starts to unfold, which seems to mirror Marie’s own lack of information about her mother’s condition.
One of the most poignant and touching moments in the book is when Marie is going to visit her mother in the psych hospital and has no idea what to say to her. More generally this seems to draw on the way mental health can be kept behind closed doors or hushed up because of societal prejudice and discrimination towards mentally ill people. The book effectively explores the extremely negative effects this tendency to not talk about mental health, particularly the confusion that Marie – and presumably other children – feel when things are never explained. Von Allan has said in interview that this was a major factor in his own experience of having a mother with schizophrenia and his book does an excellent job of evoking this and showing what it must be like for a child to go through it. The fact that it is based on his own experiences has almost certainly made this a more compelling and moving story.
“My mom was diagnosed schizophrenic when I was quite young, maybe 11 or so…She suffered a number of nervous breakdowns as I was growing up, as she battled, often very much alone, a disease that was slowly taking bits of her away. What I remember most vividly about this time was how confused and powerless I was. No one talked with me about what was happening to her and my mom was incapable of explaining it to me herself.”
the road to god knows… is educational and eye-opening but not in the preachy sense and has its share of light and funny moments too. It does a really good job of exploring a facet of mental health that I’ve not often seen done well in comic form – the perspective of a child going through the reality of a parent, particularly a mother, with severe mental illness. And it does it sensitively without demonising Betty or implicitly blaming her for being a Bad Mother. You really do end up caring about what happens to Betty as well as Marie and desperately hoping that it all works out for them. In the end it’s not a traditional ‘happy ending’ and leaves as many questions unanswered as resolved, but there is a kind of peace to it. I would hope that this would help people see mental illness from a different perspective as its sensitive handling does a great job in this sad but sweet book.