Review: Essex County – Jeff Lemire

Read: 13
To Go: 87

Book List
11. The Conversations – Michael Ondaatje
12. The Birth House – Ami McKay
13. Essex County – Jeff Lemire

I started on Jeff Lemire’s Essex County while waiting for my Intro to Reporting class to start today, not expecting to get much further than a few pages (because that book is huge). However, I didn’t factor in that it’s a graphic novel, and therefore I was able to plough through the first “book” before my prof had even started talking. By the time I left class, I’d finished it and was super impressed.

The novel consists of three intertwining stories of a young boy, an old man, and a middle-aged nurse, all taking place in the Ontario town of Essex County. The first story focuses on Lester, a young boy who loves comic books, as he deals with the aftermath of his mother’s death while adjusting to living on his uncle Ken’s farm. He meets and forges a friendship with a “simple” man named Jimmy, who Ken inexplicably hates, and wishes Les would have nothing to do with.

The second story follows Lou, a deaf, alcoholic old man with alzheimer’s disease, who’s forced into a nursing home when he’s no longer able to take care of himself. He lives the majority of his story in the past, recalling the events that tore him and his brother, Vince, apart and eventually pushed them back together, while claiming that one second he doesn’t know who he is, yet the next it will all be clear to him again.

The third book follows Anne, a nurse, and it sees her unintentionally connect the stories of Lester and Lou while dealing with her own issues – a teenage son who won’t talk to her, and a mute, aging grandmother. This story is also fraught with flashbacks to a mysterious nun in charge of an orphanage in the early 1900s, whose connection to the characters isn’t made clear until the last pages of the novel.

I have to admit, Essex County was the Canada Reads book I expected the least out of, especially since graphic novels have, on the whole, never interested me. Not to mention that I shared the common skepticism about graphic novels having any real emotional effect, or being able to tell a coherent story that flowed well.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. Lester’s story was saddening, but ended on a curious note that had me wanting to know more. When I moved onto Lou’s story, the bulk of the novel, it was a beautiful mix of heartbreaking and intriguing, and during that section I was unable to put the book down. Anne’s story tied everything together perfectly and left the book on a bittersweet end, with the closure I needed. I didn’t expect that I could be so emotionally stirred by a graphic novel, but I was.

One of the issues I had with the book  was its lack of character development – but it is obviously difficult to properly unfold the quirks and mindsets of characters in a graphic novel. If my forgetfulness of one of the key characters’ names is any indication, they didn’t resonate with me as much as other characters have – perhaps because they weren’t as thoroughly fleshed out. I would’ve liked to see more of that.

My only other issue was with some of the ambiguity – for the most part, I think all of the interwoven stories were made clear by the end, but there were moments when I thought, “Wait, but what about this character?” or “But what about this plot line?”

Regardless, I’d recommend Essex County to lovers of graphic novels – and to those who’ve never read them before. Because it’s not just a book of pictures with no emotional significance; promise.

Next book: I don’t even know yet, so it’ll be a surprise!

– Kelsey


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