Book Review: Ephemera: A Memoir by Briana Loewinsohn

Briana Loewinsohn’s debut graphic novel heralds the arrival of an intriguing new talent already operating at a masterful level. Her book attempts to unpack her memories of her challenging relationship with her emotionally unavailable mother, played out against the background of the family garden. 

Loewinsohn tells her story in two distinct time periods: her youth and her adult life. She utilizes different color palettes to mark the changes in her time-shifting narrative, coloring the past with bluish green hues and the present with reddish orange tones. Those color choices seem intended to denote the seasons of a person’s life, with the blue/greens defining the winter of her mother’s life giving way to her own spring as a child, and the red/oranges signifying the summer moving into fall of her own current life as a mother herself with two children. It’s a highly effective approach capped off with a sepia background wash on every page, giving the entire project the feel of old photographs.

Although titled as a memoir, the book contains very little text, allowing readers to gradually work out the story via the evocative images rather than wading through detailed recollections. As she points out at the start, she can’t recall much from when she was little, giving what little narrative remains a dreamy, hazy aura that generates wispy feelings rather than clearly delineated plot points. We know her father wasn’t in the picture and her mother wasn’t around much, seemingly disappearing on a whim at any time, leaving Loewinsohn and her brother to fend for themselves. We can infer that her mother struggled with mental illness, and we know that she died in their greenhouse, but don’t get any clear details into the nature of her death, indicating suicide as the likely cause. 

Much like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, The Secret Garden, Loewinsohn reconnects with her deceased ancestor by attempting to bring her neglected garden back to life. The scant memories she has of her mother largely revolve around gardening tips her mother shared during her rare interactions, and Loewinsohn draws on those as she works on both resuscitating the garden and coming to terms with her feelings about her mother. In spite of her virtual abandonment, it’s clear that Loewinsohn bears no ill will toward her mother, and perhaps understands her now better than ever as a mother herself.

Loewinsohn seems to get the most artistic satisfaction out of her lovely, delicate depictions of the flora around her mother’s home. That realistic art is juxtaposed with her somewhat cartoony, saucer-eyed human characters, a seemingly incongruous pairing that she makes work through her sheer mastery of the graphic novel form. Her panel compositions are exquisite, leading readers through the story with precision even when so much is left unsaid. Her linework is impeccable, revealing an assured hand that most veterans would envy. The colors are simply perfect, with the subdued, earthy tones adding so much feeling to a story that relies on faded memories.

Fantagraphics has utilized a fairly small, 6” x 9” footprint for the book, giving it a suitably journal-sized appearance. Thankfully, the artwork and text don’t suffer at those dimensions, with the original layouts designed large enough to function perfectly within the confined space. They also opted for stamping along all flora surfaces on the cover and spine, adding a pleasant tactile sensation to deepen the immersion in Loewinsohn’s lush world. Full color end papers also help to envelop the reader in Loewinsohn’s gorgeous garden. It’s a deluxe presentation for a debut project that the publisher clearly believes in, and with good reason.

Loewinsohn’s memoir is a remarkable debut guaranteed to make readers wonder how such an accomplished talent seemingly arrived out of nowhere. While the largely wordless story may strike some readers as a bit slight, even at 200 pages, her ability to beautifully convey strong feelings with minimal description marks her as a master cartoonist and hopefully signifies the beginning of a lengthy career to come.

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Steve Geise

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