Review: Days of the Bagnold Summer

Joff Winterhart's debut comic, Days of the Bagnold Summer, has become, along with Mary and Bryan Talbot's biography/memoir Dotter of her Father's Eyes, the first graphic novel to be nominated for a Costa Book Award. The news was undoubtedly a significant moment for the medium, and raised a number of questions about the role of comics in relation to prose -– some answered thoughtfully, some… not so much –- which will clearly be argued over for some time to come.

In my view, it's a retrograde step to compare comics to a different medium. Few would argue that The Wire needs to be nominated for an Oscar, or that Newsnight's Paul Mason is done a disservice every time he's not awarded a "best broadsheet columnist" prize. The best comics ought to be praised as just that.

Bagnold Summer has been thrust into a position few would want, fighting not only for itself, but also as a poster-child for an entire medium. The book covers six weeks of the summer holidays of schoolboy Daniel Bagnold, 15, and his librarian mother Sue, 52. It is as neat a slice-of-life as you will find; Winterhart captures teenage angst perfectly, as Daniel mopes around the house, daydreaming about being in a metal band ("Skullslayer"), and occasionally leaving to sit with his one friend in the park, dressed head-to-toe in black in the hot summer sun.

The book is structured as though it's a collection of never-before-published newspaper strips. Each page stands alone as a vignette in the Bagnold's lives, and many small events are never picked up on again. Daniel, unable to sleep, drinks a two-litre bottle of coke at 2am; Sue mistakes a page of copied-out Metallica lyrics for a heartfelt poem by her son; the pair of them discuss their memories of Sue's American father, who left the country when she was young. But these moments build up to an impressively full portrait of the two leads.

In this way, it's not short, so much as economical. Shorn of much of the connective tissue that bulks up more conventionally structured books, every panel is crucial, included because of what it adds to the book, rather than simply placing the characters where they need to be for an "event".

With many slice-of-life tales, this lack of events can get wearying, as characters go about their daily routines impeccibly observed but in a manner which doesn't say an awful lot. Bagnold Summer avoids some of that with its compactness, but also with growth. It's not much, but Sue and Daniel end the book in a different place to where they began, and it's watching that change, as much as their normal lives, which is rewarding.

The economy of the book extends to its art. The comic-strip-style layout leads to a deliberately formulaic page -– six panels, with a one-word title -– while the panels often contain nothing but scratchy headshots of the characters. Backgrounds are rare, filled in only when they are necessary for the point of the scene. The style lends an air of theatre to the whole book, as though there are stage-hands running on with the props for the next scene between each page.

It is an art style which is functional, not beautiful. That is not to impugn Winterhart's ability as a cartoonist –- his characters are far more expressive than those found in many "mainstream" comics. In fact, he appears not to know how good he is, with the odd caption being slightly overwritten. One of the best tests of a cartoonist's ability is whether the page makes sense without words, and if it does, that might be a hint that there ought to be fewer there in the first place.

Maybe this style is what appealed Bagnold Summer to the Costa jury. It's not a book which a certain type of comics reader -– one "in it for the art" -– would enjoy, but with a story told mostly through dialogue and narration, a strict visual language, and coming as it does from an "acceptable" genre, it's as good a book as any to lead the way. It's just a shame that the more radical elements of the book will likely be lost on that panel.

Oh –and feel free to call it a "graphic novel" if you want. Not all comics are graphic novels, but this one certainly is.

Comics: an art form in their own right (Getty Images)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism