Not to be Overlooked
By Emma Wallace and Natalia Alvarez
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Poison For Breakfast by Lemony Snicket.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
The name Bechdel is ubiquitous within modern-day cultural parlance. Now entirely associated with the metrical test which measures the representation of women in fiction, it is perhaps hard to think of the term away from the realms of feminist theory, much less than to conjure up the woman after whom the test is named. Fun Home, the graphic memoir that Bechdel published in 2006, is a text which places in centre stage the Bechdel test’s eponymous creator, revealing in the process the intriguing woman who so often risks being lost behind the lens of critical theory.
Chronicling Bechdel’s childhood in rural Pennsylvania, Fun Home functions as a fascinating meditation on the impacts of emotional abuse, normative gender roles and conservative sexual mores upon self-actualisation and subjectivity. Non-linear and recursive, the story is at its heart, a deeply self-reflexive and elegiac labyrinth of memories and anecdotes, charting as it does Bechdel’s eventual coming-out and her father’s consequent suicide. Written as a way of reflecting on why things turned out the way they did, according to Bechdel, Fun Home reads in many ways like a Bildungsroman that is actively trying to disentangle its own origins; at times both thought-provoking and self-effacing, humorous and heart-breaking, it is a study of life’s many peaks and troughs; the mysterious, family workings that shape us and the art we use as a form of self-identification. It is, essentially, a book that attempts to excavate and unpack the many incidents and encounters that not only made Bechdel who she is today but ultimately resulted in her own father’s death. Questions are aplenty in Fun Home but answers remain tantalisingly out of reach.
I first read Fun Home when I was a naïve English Literature fresher, and then again as a recent graduate taking my first steps into the world of work. Like the young Bechdel herself, the act of revisiting this illuminated fresh meaning and emotional depth. Sketched out in beautifully simplistic black line art with a grey-blue ink wash, Fun Home creates a rich, mythic structure out of the most heart-wrenching of catalysts, one which is as uniquely rich and psychologically complex as its much-revered author and originator. Reading this feels not only like walking a mile in Bechdel’s shoes, but also like you are embarking with Bechdel on your own act of archaeological self-investigation.
Poison For Breakfast by Lemony Snicket
“All good writing is like this. It is why a favourite book feels like an old friend and a new acquaintance at the same time, and the reason a favourite author can be a familiar figure and a mysterious stranger all at once.”
This quote comes from Poison For Breakfast, a new novel released in 2021 through Liveright by beloved author Daniel Handler (referred to synonymously by his pen name, Lemony Snicket). This is a small book, but each page has been handled with care so that the impact of these few words is meant to have a lasting effect.
His worldwide best-selling series for children, A Series of Unfortunate Events, follows three orphaned siblings as they search for a home and are met at each turn with – you guessed it - a series of unfortunate events. Snicket’s simplistic, at times confusing writing style returns in Poison For Breakfast where he is just as whimsical and surprising as I remember him being from my readings of his works as a child.
This time, the author has placed himself in his own unfortunate event that takes him through a seemingly auto-biographical narrative where he searches for the origin of his poisoned meal and recalls books, songs and conversations. Yet he always ends by stating “this person is dead now.” This is where philosophy comes to play as Snicket toys with the notions of life and death as well as bewilderment for situations people everywhere seem to find themselves victims to. These situations are usually matters out of our control - but that does not mean they are without reason.
As we follow Snicket on his journey, he constantly makes a habit of turning ordinary thoughts into revelations of life. One quote that comes to mind that perfectly embodies this notion is from chapter six: “I always enjoyed a glass of water, something clear inside something clear, which seems to me full of hope.” It is quotes like this that allow Snicket to unravel his emotions in relation to his poisoning and on a larger scale, his feelings about being dead. He wonders whether this is necessarily a bad thing, or simply an inevitability that has found him sooner than he would have liked.
Fans of Snicket’s work will find this novel a welcomed journey back into his complicated world, and new readers beware - there is always a surprise just around the corner.