Natalie Norris was just 16 years old when she was shipped off from the U.S. to France for a summer language-immersion camp. That’s where she first met and befriended Mini, a fellow student from Austria who acts as the recipient of this graphic memoir in the shape of a long-form letter crafted in a journal. Now nearly a decade later, Norris delves back into her troubled past to recount and come to terms with her wayward teenage adventures, her depression and suicidal thoughts that precipitated them, and resulting sexual assault that threatened to destroy her future.
Natalie and Mini get up to plenty of mischief during their summer together in France, but the bulk of the story and trauma occurs the following year when Natalie returns to Europe to stay with Mini in Austria. That’s where the girls fully explore their budding sexuality with neighborhood boys, carousing every night in a seeming race to see who can attract the most male attention. It’s clear that Natalie is desperately trying to escape her feelings of worthlessness in the arms of any willing suitor, but still gut-wrenching when this eventually leads her to the wrong man who won’t take no for an answer.
While Norris has a unique story, her tale of teenage sexual misadventures in Europe immediately brings to mind the soul-baring work of Ulli Lust, making Lust’s pull quote inclusion on the back cover seem instantly inevitable and appropriate. However, where Lust’s loose, scratchy art style veers toward the dark, seedy aspects of her anarchic lifestyle, Norris’s approach is startlingly bright.
Her full-color page layouts don’t have any panels, which combined with her flowing line and pleasant watercolor hues recall the graphic memoir design of Leslie Stein. However, while Stein’s reminiscences are cartoonish and Lust’s are garish, Norris hews more realistic with her character designs. Her reality as presented here appears to be a highly idealized reminiscence of her youth, all sunshine and cheerful colors even in the depths of her trauma. That light artistic presentation of a harrowing story can be construed as off-putting or less than genuine, but also enforces the idea that she chooses not to be defined by one event, putting a positive sheen on an otherwise favorably remembered past.
The Fantagraphics book design is typically exceptional, featuring raised embossing and gold accent stamping on all surfaces of the cover. Taking their attention to detail further, even the binding is rendered in gold thread, while full-color endpapers utilize a swirling design to mimic a generic journal. The nicely weighted pages are matte and off-white, furthering the journal approximation.
Norris’s debut is a disturbing, cathartic chronicle of a chaotic chapter in her life. It’s not a comfortable read, especially for those who may have similar experiences in their past or have a daughter around the same age. However, her strong voice and lovely art make for a memorable and wholly worthwhile experience. While the story presented here seems entirely complete, Norris intends to continue mining her journals for a second, concluding book in two years. I’m already counting down the days.