Comic review: The Two Lives of Penelope by Judith Vanistendael
The Two Lives of Penelope - Judith Vanistendael
Judith Vanistendael's The Two Lives of Penelope is ambitious in how it attempts to tackle serious issues not just through the medium of a comic, but in the simple relating of someone going about their everyday domestic business. This is a work where the unspoken - the things indeed that can't be spoken - are allowed to seep into everything else, where the idea of keeping them separate is simply impossible.
The two separate lives that Penelope leads are however dramatically contrasted in the opening pages of this 166 page graphic novel. Penelope is a surgeon who works tours of duty helping the war wounded in Syria. In the upper panels of each page we see the simultaneous daily activities of her husband and daughter at home in Belgium and in the lower panels, Penelope graphically struggling with the dead and wounded in Aleppo. Her husband is a poet wrapped in his own thoughts and words, her daughter 13 years old experiencing her first period while Penelope is dealing with a different type of language and blood letting.
What goes on in both sides of Penelope's world are significant but impossible to reconcile. When she returns home for a three month break, more than just luggage, Penelope also brings another kind of baggage back from Syria. It's one that is depicted visually by Vanistendael in a way that seems fairly obvious, but is no less effective for it. There's the blood-soaked ghost of a girl from the Syrian conflict, about the same age as her own daughter, inside one of her cases. How can she relate to her daughter's teenage concerns about boys and Latin exams while this memory follows her around? Thirty-two trips to war zones in ten years is inevitably starting to take its toll.
That's a lot of "baggage" to try to sum up in a person's life, but somehow Judith Vanistendael manages to do this sensitively and - aside from the Aleppo ghost girl - almost invisibly. Partly the narration expresses Penelope's sense of disconnect from the "normal" world around her, and the author doesn't need to keep reinforcing that with images from Syria. That point has been made, and it's the "normal" world and the fact that life goes on that just feels weird and barely tolerable to Penelope.
The reason this comes across well is mainly through the characterisation. The confrontations are low-key, her daughter, husband, her mother and her sister resenting to some extent Penelope's absences and her upcoming return to the front. They know it will appear selfish and insensitive to bring this up, but they also have their own lives that is important to them, and the essential irreconcilability of these world views does simmer and come out in varying expressions of frustration and annoyance.
That's expressed also in the artwork, which is made up of light sketches and bright watercolour washes in panels that flow together and capture the pace of simple everyday experiences. To look at it visually, it seems light and frivolous, like nothing important happens; a husband and wife make love, Penelope goes shopping with her daughter, they visit a Christmas market and have family get-togethers and parties. The visual reference of the red ghost accompanies her however, and Penelope's musing on these family activities and her upcoming return put everything into context, or perhaps hint at the impossibility of putting this into any meaningful context.
Vanistendael attempts to convey this in another way with references to Homer's Odyssey, only it's Penelope here who has been gone, in one way or another, in a war zone for ten years. It's doesn't quite fit, but then nothing does quite fit and the world is even more complex in a modern context, the roles of men and women different, even if the impact of wars on people probably hasn't changed that much. That comes across impressively and deeply in The Two Lives of Penelope, in the beautiful art and the situational choices, without the point having to be hammered home.