Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel. Published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin. Graphica. Nonfiction. Memoir. LGBT.
Fun Home isn't hot off the presses, but it's a book that I believe will be remembered as one that helped graphic novels gain respectability as a literary form at the beginning of the 21st century. It's just that good.
In Fun Home, writer and illustrator Alison Bechdel tells the story of her family; her father was a high school teacher/funeral home director and her mother an amateur actress. The family lived in an old Victorian house that Dad was constantly redecorating and renovating. Her parents were distant, self-involved people, whose relationship to each other is even more distant still than that which they have with their children, and the result is a disjointed, dysfunctional family, full of shame and secrets.
Bechdel's father's secret, which Bechdel believes eventually killed him, is that he was gay. Later, in college, Alison comes out as well, but her life as an out lesbian is very different than her father's closeted existence, and although she is able to extend empathy towards him after his death, she wonders how her homosexuality affected him. It's a very sad story, but also a story of redemption as Alison comes to terms with her father's death, with the reality of his life, and with the good that can be taken from their relationship.
And it's so beautifully told. Bechdel is a skilled storyteller with years of serial comics work behind her- her long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For has been published in something like 15 volumes at this point, with a big compendium just released (The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For) this past November. In her series she created a funny, vibrant world with a motley cast of characters; in Fun Home she's taken it a step further in terms of accomplishment at the same time she's taken a step back into her own life and into a deeply personal story that really isn't funny at all. (The name comes from the funeral home that was the family business.) But she's written a literary, moving and wonderful autobiography nonetheless, layered with literary allusions and references, both written and visual.
Then there's her accomplished, expressive black and white artwork- her ability to communicate moods and emotions, and to create rich, 3-dimensional characters and settings out of mere pen and ink. You can probably tell I'm a big fan; I read her strip for years before this book came out, and I was thrilled to read a different, more serious kind of story from her. My expectations were not only met- they were exceeded brilliantly. There is a good deal of explicit sex and once again it's not a book for children, but it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in graphic novels. At 232 pages it's also unusually long, but that should also tell you how involved and detailed the story is. As a graphic memoir, it's right up there with Maus and Persepolis, and destined to be a classic of the genre.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.