Fun Home – Alison Bechdel: Review & Recommend | ELLIE LOVES

I don’t often read graphic novels, and nor have I ever been into comics, so Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was definitely not an ordinary read for me. I will admit to having read it before, back in July 2017, but this time I was reading it as a part of my course at university.

This will contain spoilers, so if that is something that concerns you, perhaps read the book before the review. If you’ve already read it, or you don’t care about spoilers, please do read on.

Having loved Fun Home on my first read, I was unsurprised to find it equally as delightful a second time around. I’ve long been a lover of the musical – in fact, the musical is the reason I felt a desire to read the book. Having read it once and studied the musical extensively, I had a fairly detailed knowledge of the plot, but on my first read, a lot of the literary references passed me by, and a lot of the smaller scenes not featured in the musical soundtrack had slipped my mind.

Bechdel’s drawings are a delight, as always, and her unique, non-chronological method of storytelling allows her to draw the readers attention back to previously covered scenarios to portray them in a new light, and also gives her more control over a narrative she had relatively little control over while it was actually unfolding: she is able to give the reader information when she feels it pertains to the narrative, when she feels it will be the most impactful.

The memoir deals with a lot of heavy themes – sexuality and coming out, abuse, suicide and death and coming of age. While Fun Home is often considered to be about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, she is the primary focus of the memoir, pushing the rest of the family into the background of her own coming of age story. Bruce Bechdel is portrayed as an abusive and distant father and husband, though Bechdel never makes the reader see Bruce as a villain, rather a sad, perhaps even desperate, figure, struggling to reconcile his work and family lives with his sexuality. His obsession with restoring the house replaces the love a traditional father would feel for his family, while literature acts as the outlet he uses to escape the house he cannot quite make into a home. Bechdel, in the memoir, ruminates over the false nature of her childhood home, portraying it as a facade carefully curated by her father.

The portrayal of female sexuality within the memoir is refreshingly graphic (pun not intended) and realistic. Bechdel does not tread on eggshells around topics such as female masturbation and lesbian sex; she draws attention to these acts, highlighting their importance to her development and relationships. Her father’s sexuality, however, is not addressed in such explicit terms, rather explored through conversations with her mother and a photograph of one of her father’s lovers, found in a pile of family photographs. Bechdel’s distance from her father’s sexuality is made apparent in their last meeting before his death, during which Bechdel struggles to bring up the subject of her own homosexuality, leaving her father to broach the topic.

Bechdel is a somewhat unreliable narrator throughout the memoir, as she admits. She refers to her father’s death as a suicide, and while the evidence for this is compelling, she admits to being uncertain as to whether he intended to kill himself, or whether it was accident that he stepped back into the road. She, too, projects her own sexuality onto her father, confessing that she is unaware as to whether her father was gay, or in fact bisexual. There are also gaps in the story, as much of Bruce’s truth remains obscured by his very private lifestyle, and Bechdel relies on her mother’s recollections to fill in the events taking place behind the scenes of Bechdel’s childhood, and her parents’ marriage.

The unorthodox reaction of Bechdel to her father’s death can initially be shocking – the image of a girl my own age laughing hysterically over the death of her father is alien to someone who cannot even fathom the pain of losing a parent, though Bechdel’s relationship with her father was unorthodox throughout their shared years. As a teenager, they bonded over a shared love of literature, though Bechdel implies there was a more fraught relationship between the pair when she was a young child due to their clashes over Bechdel’s gender presentation: she fought for the right to wear boys clothes and have a short haircut, while her father insisted she wear dresses and use grips to keep her hair out of her eyes. Ultimately, as Bechdel makes evident, there is no prescribed way to mourn, no rule book for when you lose a parent.

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