Book Review – Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m having a nightmare with my photos at the moment. My Instagram feed is all over the place because I can’t the lighting consistent. The image at the top of this post was the worst to edit so far. Nothing went right and I was ready to pack it in completely. But I persisted and it will do. This book was my book club’s pick for Pride month and it was my suggestion. I normally don’t get too involved in the picking process because I was the last to join. I know it’s mental but it feels as though my opinion is less important than the others. So, I am a little worried about what they’ll think of this one. It’s been on my TBR for ages and I was looking forward to reading it. The book group is mostly full of people looking for gruesome murders though. I’m not sure this will be everyone’s cup of tea.

I think all memoirs and non-fiction should be written as graphic novels. I love non-fiction but I don’t always have the right attention span for it. It’s why I’ve got piles of half-read non-fiction books scattered around the place. However, I’ve loved every single non-fiction graphic novel that I’ve ever read. It’s an incredibly engaging way to present a lot of information to the reader. It also gives writers the chance to include lots of fun things to help tell their story. Though Alison Bechdel describes Fun Home as a tragicomic, there is more than just heartbreak and pain within these pages. The illustrations add an extra layer to proceedings and allow dark humour to creep into the story. By the time you get to the end, you’ll really believe that this is a story that could only be told in this form.

Although, it’s not as if Bechdel didn’t have practice telling stories in a visual medium. You’d expect a celebrated cartoonist to be able to pull off a graphic novel after all. The fact that she decided to explore her relationship with her father might possibly have made things more complicated but she pulls it off. Over the 7 sections of the book, we learn about Bechdel’s father and begin to uncover the secret that he was hiding for decades. The secret that came out just before this death and created a strange connection between father and daughter. Not long after coming out to her parents, Bechdel discovers that her father has been hiding his own homosexuality all of his life. Instead, he had affairs with students from his English class and focused on interior decorating.

The story is told in a non-linear structure and moments are often retold once new information has come to light. You see as the man that appears at the opening of the book quickly becomes someone entirely different. The absent father is suddenly the man who gave up his true identity to survive. His reaction to his daughter’s coming out can be viewed in a different light once you find out his own history. It isn’t that he is embarrassed by it but scared for her. Scared and maybe a little jealous. He is watching as his child takes steps into a new world and lives more openly than he ever could have. Then there is Alison’s own grief that her father died so soon after she finally got to see the real him. It’s a story that gets pretty heavy before the end.

In order to help herself understand her own sexuality as well as her father’s, Alison references and alludes to literary works. Literature is the way that she is able to make sense of the complicated parts of her life. She sees her father in the guise of literary characters from works by Homer, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. It is also through literature that Bechdel is able to confront her own sexuality and find the strength to come out. She sees her family through a literary lens, so it is no wonder that it plays such a part in the retelling of this story. Literature is also another thing that she shares with her father and is a way for the pair to reach out about their respective sexualities. Working these literary references into the graphic novel gives the reader a deeper insight into Bechdel’s mind.

After all, this is a book that is completely her. Obviously, the story concerns her family but also the creation of the illustrations. Fun Home took 7 years to complete because of the intricate process for designing the images. In order to create realistic human figures, Bechdel took photos of herself in specific poses so that she could reference them in the final image. She also recreated family photos, letters, maps and her childhood diary entries. There is such a level of realism here that you connect to the story on a deeper level. You aren’t just hearing somebody’s memoir but you’re going through their memories. You are experiencing Bechdel’s life up close and getting to see behind the scenes.

Fun Home is more than just a memoir presented as a graphic novel. It is an attempt to make sense of one man’s life and death. It is also the story of self-discovery and becoming comfortable in your own skin. This is a quick read but it is full of emotion. There is rage, confusion and pain coming through in every panel. A story full of regrets but also full of hope. Bechdel may have been late in discovering just how much she had in common with her father but she learnt from it. She was able to see her father in a renewed light and understand him better. Fun Home is a fantastic insight into the LGBTQ experience and, just as literature helped Alison, it will no doubt inspire plenty of readers.

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