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posted May 17, 2007


Creator: Rosalind B. Penfold
Publishing Information: Grove/Atlantic, softcover, 257 pages, March 2006, $15
Ordering Numbers: 080217020X (ISBN)

I've been fearful of reviewing this large, limited-scope memoir about one woman's experience within an extremely abusive relationship for a couple of reasons. First, I find myself so extremely far away from the audience likely to find this work powerful and affecting that I'm not sure I can be fully engaged with what it does and how it does. Second, this book has an obvious therapeutic purpose that I not only can't access, but I'm loathe to pass judgment on it in any way. Whether or not something has an effect on your life or a life issue the way this book likely has for a lot of people is to my mind something quite a bit different from its value as art. The most affecting thing I ever read in my life was a story I read off a typewriter ribbon in a refurbished word processor; however, it wasn't something I think would work for a large number of people as a published manuscript.

imageAll of that confessed, Dragonslippers doesn't succeed for me as a work of art, let alone scales the heights that some reviewers have afforded it. Too many of the choices in presenting the story made me wonder after the emotional vulnerabilities of the protagonist and even the monstrous qualities of the horrible, abusive other half of the relationship. This would be fine in and of itself -- for all I know, she's exactly as portrayed and the guy was ten times worse -- but the cartoonist lacked skill in the craft of panel to panel scripting and cartoon art that would allow me to better trust the consistency of the character's portrayal.

I also felt the art and writing was generally crude, and while I imagine that some might think the direct nature of such work more convincing, intimate and authentic, I'm not sure I'd agree with them. There were elements like the machine lettering and the cursory portrayals of supporting characters that cut against those notions, for one. Worse, I frequently found myself wanting to stop and parse out exactly what was going on. This usually didn't last for very long before the story bluntly and firmly told me what I was reading. There's a lot of tell, very little show in Dragonslippers, and when accompanied by art that's inexpressive or inconsistent it makes one think that the directness arrives out of a limited ability to portray subtlety. This puts the reader in a natural but awful position of wanting to push back against such a controlled narrative, or at least question it, which runs counter to the more human emotion of wanting to respect what happened and the bravery that comes with making art about it. In the end, I was left imagining there couldn't be too many experiences in life as awful as the author endured, and equally convinced there had to be more graceful, more profound and even more powerful ways to present it.