Review: Essex County by Jeff Lemire

At the office, I started an Off-Canada Reads series and invited other co-workers to join, hoping that at least four would be interested so that we could each buy one of the five finalist books and then pass them around. In the end, six people were interested, so we decided that we would choose two other books from the original top 40 that we thought should have made it into the top five. Those books were Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall and Heave by Christy Ann Conlin.

Essex County by Jeff Lemire

I was dying to get my hands on this book, not only because I had read good reviews, but also because I love graphic novels, and I wanted to read the first graphic novel to make it into the top five of the Canada Reads series.

I read the Collected Essex County in one sitting. In Book #1, Tales from the Farm, we meet Lester and his uncle. Lester's mother has died of cancer, and Lester is left to his uncle Kenny. Obviously, because they live on a farm, Lester has chores, which he doesn't always do, much to the dismay of his uncle. Instead, Lester escapes to an imaginary world where he's a superhero, perhaps as a way to stave off his grief. He eventually meets Jimmy Lebeuf, who is rumoured to be somewhat slow after a head injury in hockey. Jimmy befriends Lester, but Kenny is opposed to the friendship for reasons that the reader later discovers.

Lemire's drawings are scratchy lines that convey a considerable amount of nuance and quickly pull the reader into the story. The angles of his frames sometimes give us the impression of a very detailed storyboard for a beautiful short film. Lemire is also very good at crafting natural dialogue.

The first book is a wonderful beginning to a beautiful and moving story, perhaps the best of the three in the Collected Essex County. Although the characters change throughout the three books, they are all connected by narrative threads and Essex County itself. The exact relationship of all the characters is only disclosed towards the end.

Unfortunately, the second book Ghost Stories was a disappointment. The reader meets an old Lou Lebeuf, who is hard of hearing and suffers from dementia. His flashbacks unveil the story of his youth. Twenty-year-old Lou moves to Toronto and is eventually followed by his brother Vince. They play hockey on a losing team, which eventually finds itself on a winning streak in no small part due to the playing ability of Lou and Vince. Sound familiar? Vince and his girlfriend eventually decide to leave Toronto and move back to Essex County, but not before there is an indiscretion on Lou's part. This transgression keeps Lou in Toronto for 25 years without returning to Essex County even to visit his mother. He works as a TTC streetcar driver and leads a lonely life, never feeling quite at home in Toronto.

Book 3, the Country Nurse, brings us back to Essex County, and although this book was enjoyable as the reader discovers more about the relationships between the characters, it couldn't make up for the lack of depth in Ghost Stories. I can understand that losing a hockey career to injury was a disappointment for young Lou and that he harboured a lot of guilt for his indiscretion, but the depth of these emotions is not explored in the story. And let's not forget--this was no small twinge of guilt. It kept Lou from Essex County for 25 years.

Unfortunately, the hockey narrative has been used far too many times without ever serving up anything new. If Ghost Stories had shed some light on Lou's feelings of loneliness, regret and the profound disappointment of losing his hockey career, this story might have worked. Even when Lou returns to Essex County, his 25 years in Toronto do not appear to have transformed the 20-year-old, except of course, for a drinking problem.

Overall, I would say that Jeff Lemire may one day become a great storyteller. We can definitely see his potential in Tales from the Farm and Country Nurse. He also has a beautiful way of weaving together narrative threads, but he hasn't hit his stride yet.

In terms of a great Canadian graphic novelist, look no further than Michel Rabagliati and his Paul series. My favourite, Paul Goes Fishing, has the depth and maturity that was lacking in Ghost Stories. I wanted to love Essex County, but unfortunately I didn't.

Other Reviews and Canada Reads posts
Paul Goes Fishing by Michel Rabagliati
Some Thoughts on Canada Reads
Expozine's Broken Pencil
Make Me A Woman by Vanessa Davis
Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges
Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
Comics: Girls, Boys and Reading



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