THIS ONE SUMMER by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki (Groundwood/House of Anansi), 320 pages, $18.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
The dynamic comic arts duo of Toronto sisters Mariko and Jillian Tamaki reached into memories of summers past to make their latest stunner, a graphic novel that's both muted and dramatic.
Set at a cottage at the fictional Awago Beach in Ontario, This One Summer tells the story of two friends, Windy and Rose, on the cusp of puberty and ricocheting through a fog of listless boredom, sexual curiosity and family crisis over the course of a season.
Their relationship is beautifully depicted. Rose is the quiet narrator and detached observer, funnelling her emotions inward, while the charming Windy - one and a half years younger, a difference that matters to preteens - can't stop herself from dancing wildly, indulging in too much sugar and generally being messy, loud and vulgar.
But both also have phenomenally mature moments of insight and argument, and Mariko's dialogue - for the children, the sex-crazed teens who run the town's corner store and the complicated parents - is terrifically smart and believable.
The Tamakis expertly balance the story's slowly building dramatic tension, whose sources are external and symbolic (a scandalous teen pregnancy set against Rose's mother's infertility), with meditative, blissed-out vacation minutiae: floating in a tube on the lake, gathering smooth rocks, drawing at a kitchen table all afternoon.
And Jillian's drawings really open up, and sometimes redirect, the narrative. Extreme close-ups followed by wide-lens illustrations of sky and beach give the simple, spare text incredible air and space, subtly shifting the tone along the way.
Even as the book grows darker, the fighting gets uglier and the inevitable loss of innocence draws closer, a sense of hope remains, and your empathy with the characters never falters. It's difficult subject matter handled with grace.