The Windsor Star’s review of Susceptible

Graphic Tale Relates Youth's Isolation

The Windsor Star    |    Ian McGillis    |    February 23, 2013

I can't cite any numbers to support the argument, but it has always seemed to me that graphic literature features a higher proportion of coming-of-age stories than any other literary form. There's something about the medium that's especially well suited to conveying the heightened emotional states of childhood and adolescence.

It could be that because a part of our collective brain will always associate comics with the purely escapist fare that many of us grew up with, it's all the more of a jolt when the form is employed for more serious and subversive ends.

Where our DNA still half-expects Dennis the Menace or The Archies, cutting-edge contemporary cartoonists instead give us something closer to Wes Anderson or David Foster Wallace. (No disrespect intended to Dennis the Menace and The Archies, by the way.)

Genevieve Castrée's Susceptible, a graphic novel about a girl growing up with a single mother in the Quebec of the 1980s and '90s, is an exemplary new case of this tendency. Castrée was born in Quebec and now lives in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, where she works as a visual artist and musician.

Her biography, to the small degree that it is revealed, bears undeniable similarities to that of Susceptible's heroine, Goglu. But while it's not clear exactly how autobiographical Castrée's intent is, the story she tells - in words and, mostly, in stylized, sometimes subtly symbolic images - has the unmistakable ring of life as it is lived.

Goglu is conceived while her Québécoise mother is in Alberta; the mother goes back home to give birth and the Anglo father stays out West, setting the tone for an early life Goglu spends torn between parental poles, both figurative and literal.

Living in a series of cheap apartments and later in a house in a working-class suburb, Goglu is left largely to fend for herself while her mother wrestles with her own problems: drink, poor taste in men, lack of money.

When time and budget permit, Goglu visits her biological father on the West Coast, where their lack of a common language makes for a halting, tentative relationship. Public life intrudes on the private sphere rarely but tellingly: Goglu is too young to fully absorb the implications when the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre happens ("Mom, what does 'feminist' mean?").

The news triggers a nightmare in Goglu, represented by Castrée with a nearly full-page image of blood-spattered young women. A page later, unremarked, we see Marc Lepine's face on a TV screen.

Elsewhere, Castrée employs a bird's-eye-view perspective as a perfect metaphor for the disembodied sensation that anyone who has ever felt alienated as a youth will recall all too well.

The core of the novel is the age-old mother-daughter dynamic. Castrée limns the relationship through the daughter's eyes with great delicacy and nuance, occasionally stepping outside the narrative flow with an adult's retrospective voice.

Goglu and Amère are often more like feuding sisters than parent and child and, as in a remarkable amount of recent fiction (several stories in George Saunders's Tenth of December spring to mind), it's the child, not

the grown-up, who possesses the more reliable moral compass.

Goglu's is exactly the kind of emotional isolation that can drive a girl into the outcast subcultures of punk and goth; that her doing so never appears cliched is a tribute to the compassion of Castrée's eye.

The heroine's slow and halting growth to maturity is reflected in her language, as when she nails a seldom-remarked Canadian truth: "As I get older, I meet other children who have a missing father in British Columbia. It's like a mythical kingdom where dads go to disappear."

At times the focus on the two main characters works to the detriment of the supporting cast: The portrayal of stepfather figure Amer, a control freak who won't allow anyone to adjust the volume knob on his home stereo, feels a bit one-dimensional. But, hey, it's possible that the real-life model, assuming there is one, was a true dyed-in-the-wool jerk.

Regardless, it's a minor issue. Susceptible charts the thorny path from confusion to hard-won wisdom as only the best fiction can, building up to an ending that's genuinely moving.

The world would be a richer place if even a fraction of the Twilight masses tuned in to books like this one, books that show young people groping toward a sense of identity through narratives that unfold in the world of real cause and effect, without leaning on fantasy.

Awkward girls - and their guy counterparts, and anyone who remembers what it was like to be either - will have a friend in Goglu.

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