Thursday, 12 April 2012

A review of "Ethel & Ernest" by Raymond Briggs

Hello People in the Ether,

   This isn't a new book, though it is new to me. And it isn't a picture book, it's a foray into strip cartoon storytelling long before graphic novels became vogue. Oh, and it isn't a children's book, it's mature, real and wounding - though good fodder for them in years to come.


   I have very fond childhood memories of Briggs' Father Christmas, Snowman and Fungus stories. But this is an altogether more serious and aching piece. Briggs uses his comic strip style to affectionately and honestly tell the tale of his parents' relationship, from courtship to grave.

   The story is tenderly crafted, full of love and personality. Ethel is conservative, proper and aspirational, Ernest is political, hard-working and doting. We get to know the couple, their idiosyncrasies and the dynamics of their love as we witness the little moments and big dramas that make a life. I especially love the way Briggs shows Ethel and Ernest making their house into a cosy home.

   As we sweep through much of the twentieth century there is war, rationing, technological advances and political upheaval. But these social and historical backdrops never overwhelm the story - they are just facets of the couple's existence.

   Briggs' frames are bathed in warmth, wit and regard. He may be telling his parents' story and appearing in it himself, but it never falters into sentimentality or schmaltz. The book is all about truth and love. The illustrations are subtle, strong in their simplicity, and utterly beguiling. The scratchy lines create a sense of place and person, making it look so much easier than I'd hazard it was. The closing sequences, especially the final illustration of Ethel, are genuine, searing and heartbreaking.

   The hand lettering of all the text is glorious - it gives the story a personal, letter-like quality, as if Briggs is relating all this to me and me alone. He has been known to bemoan the fact that he's not a "proper writer", that he has to consider the physicality of the book, the tone of the illustrations, the grid and layout, the printer's colour palette instead of just focusing on the words. But I think this gives his books a holistic creation. He definitely is a "proper writer", he crafts beautifully succinct and evocative text. But he's more - he's an artist, a maker of books, a storyteller.

   "Ethel & Ernest" won the Illustrated Book of the Year in 1998, but it could easily have been the book of the year - it can hold its head high in the company of Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam". It's a masterpiece in its own everyday, humble, personal way.

    Thanks for reading,

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