Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review of Billy, Me and You by Nicola Streeten

I've read this book repeatedly since it landed through my letter box. I've cried, laughed and often found myself nodding in agreement while thinking 'that's so true'.

Billy, Nicola Streeten's beautiful little boy, was just two years old when he died following heart surgery for problems that were diagnosed only ten days earlier. She kept a diary at the time and thirteen years later began to translate her notes into this graphic novel.

It begins with a sketch of Nicola and her husband John leaving the hospital on 19 September 1995 carrying Billy's property in a few bags. 

Over the following pages she describes how she could only cry in front of John or the psychologist, and how she incorporated daily crying into her journey home. 

Nicola then confronts the limits of public grieving and begins to mark everyone's responses to her grief out of 10.  

She also draws more emotionally harrowing scenes where both she and John become frightened by this huge sense of emptiness that has suddenly hollowed out their lives. They are lost for a while as they try to find reasons to blame themselves for what has happened and even contemplate suicide. 

Every now and then Nicola pauses for a moment of reflection in a series of self-portraits where she talks about what made them laugh, helped them to heal and wryly acknowledges the arrogance of grief.

The drawings appear deceptively simple but they are subtly complex. 

For example, there's a scene where Nicola and John go to a group session at the hospital. 

Here Nicola has framed the page with a gradually fading circle of dark grey around a central clear point and placed the nurse and the hospital psychologist in it, this creates a sense of detachment and feels like they've come into view through a fog of pain. 

The dense fog of pain rests in the centre of the room on the following pages symbolically keeping others' grief at the outer edge of their own. 

Then when it's Nicola and John's turn to speak she reverses the effect so that they become the detached focus through another's fog of pain. 

Simple, yet painfully expressive.

Photography is also used to powerful effect: a shot of the last toys that Billy played with, the places that they went to while they waited for his operation to be over, and a discarded pine table that became a project for them both soon after Billy's death.

Billy, Me& You is extraordinarily unflinching and honest as Nicola reflects on the grieving process with compassion, humour and humility. 

You cannot help but respond to the deeply human insights that she sketches on each page; the fragility of life expressed through a vase of sunflowers, 
the reality that there is no time limit for grief,
and that moments of guilt, especially as the fog of pain begins to lift, can strike like a knife in the heart at the most unexpected times. 

This is a novel that will resonate with anyone who has experienced the devastating loss of someone they love. It's completely unique as it graphically draws on the past to demonstrate that a future is possible as time eases the grief. That understanding and acceptance can be illuminated in the darkest moments, and that you will always keep the precious memories of your loved ones with you wherever your future lies. 

Published by Myriad Editions

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