Jimmy Beaulieu's Bikini

Here's a review I wrote for the Summer 2014 issue of the Montreal Review of Books. Because the following graphic novel was pretty slim, I spent some time at the public library reading other works by Jimmy Beaulieu. He definitely dares to be an innovator, and I'm sure that there are people "borrowing" some of his unique ideas. I particularly enjoyed his take on body image, both male and female.  

My Neighbour’s Bikini
Jimmy Beaulieu
Conundrum Press

Jimmy Beaulieu is a creative force in the French-speaking graphic novel milieu. The cartoonist has published 16 books in the past 14 years, in addition to working as the publisher at Mécanique Générale and starting his own small-print press Colosse. In 2010, English Canada was finally able to see some of Beaulieu’s work with the release of Suddenly Something Happened. It was the story of Beaulieu’s life, his childhood growing up among a huge extended family on Île d’Orléans, his parents’ separation, his years of singledom in the Métropole, and finally life with his girlfriend in Montreal’s Rosemont. Suddenly Something Happened showcased Beaulieu’s significant skill as a graphic artist and his wonderful sense of humour. However, it failed to show another aspect of the cartoonist’s considerable talent, something that is fortunately in My Neighbour's Bikini.

Originally published in French in 2006, My Neighbour’s Bikini is the story of two shy neighbours living on the Plateau who meet on a sweltering summer day when everything grinds to a halt because of a power blackout. Simon introduces himself to his neighbour Bernadette on a downtown street, and after they walk home together, Bernadette invites Simon to go for a swim at the neighbourhood pool. The chance meeting has an authentic cringeworthy feel to it, mainly because of the realistic dialogue, and this short tale offers a very accurate depiction of Montreal. However, at first glance, the story has some sizable shortcomings. I initially thought that the problem might be the translation, but upon closer examination I realized that there was a problem with the story’s flow.

In a graphic novel the reader has to be able to readily understand the relationship between two consecutive panels, through visual or textual clues. However, in my first reading of My Neighbour’s Bikini, this relationship between panels was not always clear. Two vignettes have been inserted into the storyline that have zero or little impact on the outcome of the narrative. In the first instance, Bernadette and Simon’s conversation is interrupted by a sequence with a young man cycling on the Mont-Royal. In the second, the story jumps abruptly from Bernadette and Simon walking home to two women in an apartment sharing an intimate moment. One of these women, who the reader later meets at the pool, is Bernadette’s neighbour. While these two vignettes were initially confusing, they do add some atmospheric detail to the story, lending it an overall dreamlike quality. Introducing vignettes into the traditional storyline, I discovered, was a recurring pattern in Beaulieu’s other work. This is especially true in À la faveur de la nuit, a humourous tale about two women telling each other stories late into the night.

Another recurring feature in Jimmy Beaulieu’s work that was non-existent in Suddenly Something Happens is nudity, which is tastefully presented and never gratuitous in My Neighbour’s Bikini. Beaulieu has considerable talent at drawing nudes, and the author should be given credit for presenting natural-looking full-hipped women rather than the standard waif variety. In the past, he has presented work with frontal nudes of men, which was the subject of complaints at the Quai des Bulles Festival in St Malo, France. Naked women were apparently fine, but a naked man in an intimate moment was apparently offensive….

I must admit that I was initially puzzled by the publisher’s choice to translate a book that was first released in French eight years ago. Obviously, it did not reflect how far the author has come since then. But My Neighbour’s Bikini, although not Beaulieu’s best, is tamer than some of his other work, and it may be a way to test the waters to see how English speakers will react to his more audacious content. Overall, once I accepted his non-traditional storyline, I enjoyed the oneiric quality of his work, and of course, I liked that his characters, both male and female, looked like everyday people, a refreshing and welcome change.

Other book-related reviews
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Letting It Go by Miriam Katin
My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me by Gina Roitman
Stony River by Tricia Dower
Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado
Bombay Wali and other stories by Veena Gokhale
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming


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