I was hit pretty hard by the first two books in Jeff Lemire's Essex County trilogy of graphic novels, and now the final volume, The Country Nurse (Top Shelf, 2008, 128 b&w pages, $9.95), made my heart hurt all over again. It's good stuff.
Like those earlier books, The Country Nurse works as a stand-alone story, but I'd recommend reading the trilogy from start to finish, so that you really can understand how all of the characters are connected. Moreover, this volume contains a pretty key moment for the characters featured in volume 1, Tales from the Farm, that only will resonate properly if you've already read that one.
This book spends a day with Anne Quenneville, a nurse who travels about a small town trying to make the lives of her patients just a little bit better. We already met her in volume 2, but now we get to learn more about her life and history. It also reveals more about her patients, who we know from the previous books. The story flashes back and forth between Anne's day and an episode in the life of her grandmother, ekeing out a living in 1917 in the Canadian wilderness as a nun watching over an orphanage.
Here's why these books will kick you in the gut: these are very likeable, nice people, and yet everybody is unhappy because of past mistakes or ill fortune. Everyone is a little broken, everyone has suffered a loss of youthful hope and vigor; a loss of a loved one or of health; damage physical or mental. They are long-suffering people who bear it silently, for the most part. Grudges are held for years. Secrets are kept hidden. Family members go decades without seeing or speaking to each other, unable to express their love for each other. It just kills you, knowing that if they could just bring themselves to face their problems they might be happier, but also understanding that they can never really go back to the ways things used to be. What been lost for them is irretrievable.
Even poor Anne, a sweet woman who is just trying her best to help others, has had a pretty crummy time of it.
And the beauty of these books comes from watching the moments when some of these people, who have been grimacing their way through life, instead decide to affirmatively deal with their problems. Everything from their pasts begins to bubble up and out, unable to be contained. Will they be happier? Will they make peace with their own mistakes?
This is tremendous drama.
Oh, and I liked the art too: scritchy scratcy black ink, backgrounds that make you feel like you are living in Essex County with the characters, and expressive yet nuanced acting.
I really loved these books and highly recommend them.
Lemire currently is working on a graphic novel for Vertigo called The Nobody. I'm looking forward to that, although not without feeling some regret that he isn't making more Essex County books. I could read another trilogy about these characters and still want more.
See a preview here.
You can buy the book from publisher Top Shelf here or from Amazon here: Essex County vol. 3: The Country Nurse
Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.
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