Nicholas Lezard's choice
In the case of a graphic novel, it is actually perfectly acceptable to evaluate, if not judge, exactly, a book by its cover. And what do we have? Well, you can see it here. A winter scene, foregrounded by a young, timorous-looking woman, and in the front, a large, grumpy and/or determined looking older woman carrying a handbag, wearing what look like rubber washing-up gloves, and carrying ... a gun? One imagines a story of an amateur old lady sleuth ... but Miss Marple never even came close to carrying a gun (unless I am mistaken).
Of course, it’s important for the artist responsible for the book to put an arresting image on the front cover, and it should be said that, as it turns out, the scene on the front is not exactly replicated in the narrative inside. What actually happens is much more interesting.
Posy Simmonds has been a feature of the graphic/cartoon scene since the 1970s, when she would poke gentle fun, in the Guardian, at the anxieties of middle-class Guardian readers. Because Guardian readers are so sophisticated, of course, they had to laugh; and, as it happened, the satires were spot-on; and behind some of the more overtly political strips, there was a steely anger, particularly about sexism. Her later full-length books would contain both neat and piercing social observation (I once had a nightmare in which I became a Posy Simmonds character, and every weakness and failing was pitilessly exposed, with great graphic economy), and death and violence. This would play very well in contrast to her drawing style, which is almost gentle; not so much Hergé’s ligne claire as ligne douce. Which makes a narrative contrast all the more striking, just as the way her near-contemporary Raymond Briggs combined a soft line with a terrifying story about nuclear holocaust in Where the Wind Blows.
In Cassandra Darke, we begin in the world of art dealers (after a mocked-up newspaper story about a woman’s body being found in the woods). Our heroine is the eponymous Darke, bundled up in a vast overcoat and a sort of hunter’s cap; we learn pretty early on that she is a ghastly woman, a misanthrope, a cheat, a convicted fraudster in fact, mean, and ghastly to her employees. The London Christmastime setting makes us think of Scrooge, perhaps, but only in that here we also have a nasty piece of work in a season of goodwill. There are no spirits of past, present and future, although there are flashbacks. The story—well, to say much more about the story would be to spoil the pleasure of reading it. I would say, though, that it would be a good idea to read the book at least twice, so you can appreciate Simmonds’s skill in handling the timing, the prefiguring—and, of course, her art.
This is, as it always was, superlative. She has always been able to express character and expression with almost unbelievable deftness. This, of course, is one of the figurative artist’s chief jobs, but Simmonds does it not with oils or pastels, but with pen, pencil, and a limited palette of colors. You’ll notice that sometimes her characters’ eyes are drawn simply as dots, or as, well, tailless commas; but sometimes they are drawn so we can see the shape of the lids and the white of the sclera. Cassandra’s eyes, though, are always drawn as dots; that is, when we can see them from behind the lozenges of her glasses. She seems to wear a perpetual frown, but that’s not quite right: I noticed that we rarely, if ever, see her eyebrows. Everyone else’s eyebrows are extremely articulate, and in the case of Nickie, the young daughter of her ex-husband, so articulate as to make me fall half in love with her; but Cassandra’s are hidden either beneath the front of her hunter’s cap or, when she’s not wearing it, the helmet of her fringe. But we see her expression in her posture, or the doughy sag of her cheeks when alone and sad.
And that’s when I got whom she reminded me of: the Grandma in Giles’s cartoons. Giles was pretty much the UK’s most famous cartoonist for almost half a century after the war, and his most enduring creation was Grandma, a battleaxe in a vast, shapeless overcoat, a perpetual hat jammed on her head, and her eyes were hidden behind the lozenges of her glasses, and although she didn’t often speak, the single-panel cartoons in which she featured often contained the reeling aftermath of one of her outrages. She was not someone you messed around with. (Also, Giles liked drawing snow—because it involves nothing more than white space, and can be remarkably effective, like silence in a play or a piece of music, and there is a lot of snow— an unrealistic amount of snow, given the unlikelihood of Christmas snow in London—in Cassandra Darke).
That Cassandra is a homage to Grandma is indisputable, but here we are a long way away from the domestic japes of the Giles Family, and in a dark and dangerous world: she gets mixed up with a world of gangsters, groomed Romanian prostitutes, and guns; and yet, despite being an awful human being, in a way that Giles’s Grandma could only dream of being, she achieves a kind of redemption, and we reread the book with more sympathy for her than we do when we read it for the first time. It is also about art, and age, and trust, both between people in ordinary human exchange, and between buyer and seller in the art market; Simmonds is, at times, as merciless in her gaze as she ever was, but here there is something here of tenderness, of redemption. This is as rich as any novel, and a lot richer than many that I could think of.
Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.