You’ll Never Know (Book 1: A Good and Decent Man) reviewed by Ng Suat Tong

Posted by on December 21st, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Written in 1994, Carol Tyler’s “The Hannah Story” was a tribute to her mother, Hannah, and her strength in dealing with her in-laws as well as the death of her daughter, Ann. Despite the intervening years, Tyler’s sensitive “voice” remains easily recognizable in her latest book, You’ll Never Know.

In both stories, readers are led on a search for meaning and an exploration of grief. In “The Hannah Story”,  Tyler’s mother holds a story of sudden, tragic death close to her heart; one which is only released from its confines when a box of distant but indelible memories is opened. In the case of her father, Charles Tyler, the contents of another box of memories are littered throughout the house in the form of medals, photos and other war memorabilia – precious but insufficient to trigger any form of disclosure from this private man. The exact reasons for his sudden outpouring on the 14th page of this book remains elusive, even at the very close of this first of three volumes, though there are perhaps suggestions as to some possible explanations in the mental break her father experiences at the end of the book.

Tyler has chosen to present her latest work in the physical form of a scrapbook with a wood grain-effect cover (a subtle nod to her father’s livelihood). In this and in her decision to subtitle her work a “graphic memoir”, she signals her intentions from the fore. Even so, Tyler’s book is not strictly a memory book but a meditation on the secondary effects of the Second World War on the children of the men who fought and risked their lives. As a result, a substantial section of the book pertains to her relationship with the two most important men in her life – her father and husband. The book does not recount a single life but two intertwining ones – that of Tyler and her father.  Her prime source of information, her father, is a half-open book hiding essential secrets. As such the narrative is filled with false starts before we are presented with the first of two scrapbooks describing her father’s freewheeling existence during the war. Here he describes his various wartime escapades as he journeys from the Illinois National Guard to Camp Forrest in Tennessee with a short stop at a marine hospital before finally beginning a journey across Northern Africa. Along the way he manages to romance his future wife and perform a few feats of engineering.

The first volume of You’ll Never Know is in fact a long prelude describing the effects rather than the perceived cause of both Tyler and her father’s psychological state. It draws a tenuous line between her own fragility and sense of inferiority, and her father’s distance born of burying his memories “under tons of mental concrete”.  The extent of this distance is difficult to discern since the most damning observation presented by Tyler is mild to say the least: she depicts her father as a fox continually zipping past an incurably stunted sapling (representing Tyler herself) with the remark “…all that zippin’ past me has had an effect. I mean look at this shape!!”

Tyler admits to this tension early on in her book when she writes, “The pattern of romance for a girl is set by her relationship with her father – which for me is a concern because historically, things between dad and I have not been optimum. Now wait. I’m out to do a nice story about dad. No sour grapes. I’m not going to start pointing the finger or blame him for my guy troubles.” Yet she continually reinforces this linkage by juxtaposing her faltering relationship with her husband (the cartoonist Justin Green) with the considerably more harmonious and loving marriage of her parents.

She further emphasizes her concerns by imbuing the early years of her parents with an almost Capraesque atmosphere characterized by strong familial support and encouragement.  In the penultimate scene of the book, Tyler’s father loses his hat to a gust of wind and finds it in the hands of Hitler who exclaims, “That your children suffer because I’ve damaged you fills me with pride!” This is the central thesis of “A Good and Decent Man” and it is one which Tyler both posits and resists. The presence of Tyler’s daughter in this equation serves only to remind us that yet another generation is at stake.

You’ll Never Know begins with some photo-referenced art work before progressing to a more traditional comics narrative. Scenes from her father’s war time service are presented as drawn album “photos”. The book is littered with large splash pages, a technique also seen in the final page of “The Hannah Story” where the penultimate panel of the story dissolves, giving space to the expanse of a large oriental carpet which transforms into a tapestry of Ann’s short life.

As befits a larger work, there is a more copious and inventive use of this technique throughout You’ll Never Know.  The first few pages of the book reveal  a timber warehouse which becomes a fascinating  and delicately drawn palace of converging and dissecting line.

Later, Tyler describes the  modern-day setting for her story in a single page – a landscape through which her father travels where a mixture of diners and farms hide a barely visible message.

Be Sociable, Share!

Pages: 1 2

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.