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Monday, February 4, 2008

Book Review: Bechdel's Fun Home Delves Into Bittersweet Memories

Removing a key family member has a way of dislodging all sorts of family secrets and buried experiences that have spent years being packed away. I've seen this from a remove recently with a death in my own family, and it is echoed in Alison Bechdel's searching memoir Fun Home.

Fun Home, like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis books straddle that uncomfortable highbrow/lowbrow divide between "comics" and "literature." As insightful as any plain-text memoir, both get sneered at for some by "cheating" in using a graphic form to help tell their stories. The outsider, neither-fish-nor-fowl nature of both of these enterprises fit well with their author's subject matter. While Satrapi is caught between different worlds during the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath, Bechdel and her father exist as different sides of a shared coin.

Bechdel chooses to come out as a lesbian while she's in college. She embraces this part of herself and finds comfort in knowing who she is. Shortly after this she discovers that her father has hidden a major part of his identity from the world through much of his life. Before she is able to have a chance to connect with him fully about their differing experiences with sexual identity, he dies unexpectedly.

Fun Home is Bechdel's examination of she and her father's identities, sexual and otherwise. She tries to understand her remoteness from his death by understanding his remoteness from his children. Delving into memories that take on altered significance with the knowledge she has gained about her father and herself.

The book is suffused with a wry ironic humor. The title comes from what she and her siblings called her father's (and sometimes their) place of business -- a funeral home. The drawings are wonderfully straightforward and precise, as is the prose. There is a touch of Maurice Sendak in her characterizations but none of his whimsy. She often uses her frame to pack in telling details, as when her exacting mother is on the phone sweating the details of her play rehearsal. A little arrow points out that she is removing from the oven "Moussaka for five and fresh sourdough bread in fifteen minutes."

Fun Home, now out in paperback, is a worthy addition to what feels like a gusher of new memoirs. Bechdel has a clear, interesting voice and pen, and her story is at once tragic, funny, and sweet.

Fun Home gets 4 out of 5 hearses:

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