To be suddenly unaware of yourself, the world around you—to have no sure memory from moment to moment, to be at a loss of your own emotions, and to lose time. A huge, yawning void where your life should have been. No ability to keep track of yourself, to forget your own name, where you live, to not recognize your loved ones.
All these things and more were experienced by French cartoonist Élodie Durand, who discovered in her early 20s that she had an inoperable brain tumor. Parenthesis is her account of her experience, now decades behind her. In the graphic memoir, she recounts the space between the parentheses of her title, that great pause of her life.
Told retrospectively in conversation with her mother, Judith (Durand’s middle name and graphic avatar) is still without all the right information of what happened in that gap—those years are gone, and what remains is faulty. She remembers being in doctor’s offices alone when her mother was also present, she misremembers when and how she told her family about the tumor. Whole months are stretches of tiny flashes of single moments, pinpricks of consciousness in an empty dark. Her mother must continue to reestablish a larger continuity, to tell her stories of herself.
Being told stories of herself is the best she has—when she runs into old acquaintances from her life before the illness, she is initially overwhelmed with anxiety when they ask her what she’s been up to, as she has no answer—she has, aside from illness, been up to nothing, that space in time is lost.
This sense of loss, of uncertainty, sinks into the reader. Looking back through the story, it is jarring to realize that pages that felt smothered in negative space are, in truth, filled with Durand’s sketchy shading, with landscape and physical detail. Inserted throughout are drawings (or representations of drawings) Judith made during her illness, seemingly unskilled, childish scrawls of bodies fading, of heads consuming torsos, of shapes doubled over in pain, and it is these drawings that, however few they may be, loom over the book, more real than the quaintly furnished waiting rooms, the view from Durand’s apartment window, the vague outlines and heavy darks of hospital hallways and the bedroom in which she slept endlessly.
It’s always a challenge to properly orient a reader of any work of memoir in the past of another without something being lost in translation somewhere; that Parenthesis is actually a translation from the French and loses nothing is a testament to Durand’s frank, conversational framing, and lack of medium convention; sometimes the panels of the pages drop away, lowering even those meager walls between experience and reader. Full pages are left mostly blank, with the barest prose at the bottom, and these are sometimes followed up with several pages of the monstrous drawings—moments where the reader is forced to dwell in a moment, a tone, a single thought.
Loss is, primarily, what Durand details: a theft of time taken first in snippets, brief moments of unawareness, and then in great swaths. Ultimately, years fill the parentheses of her illness, and that’s a hard amount of time to grasp, for the reader and almost certainly for the creator, whose lost time is now a basic fact of her past; such distance to reflect and over philosophize could, in some memoir, result in a lack of urgency, but Durand keeps the reader on the razor’s edge of the experience—no turn is given out of hand, nothing is given away too soon, and everything seems incredibly present.
It is a story of confusion and loss, certainly, but it is also an uplifting story of recovery. A feeling of incredible relief overwhelms the reader as Durand moves out from under the shadow of her illness, and her feelings of joy, of a desire to love life fully, are ultimately what the reader takes away; one is moved to grasp at one’s own joys, to make amends with one’s own wasted time. The horror and uncertainty of illness are so large, so complete in its wiping away of Durand’s life that the reader comes out with a sort of after-image, a white spot of living after staring so long at that dark spot of loss.
Parenthesis is a book that will stay with you, however imperfect your memory of it will become. And, like Durand’s lost time, perhaps it will inspire you to be a little more aware of the tenuous nature of living, of self, and of memory. Perhaps it will inspire you, as the experience inspired her, to be hungry for life.
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