Everyone is always saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And I get that it’s supposed to be a kind reminder that looks are not the most important thing, blah blah blah. But when it comes to actual books, and not just the metaphoric placeholder for people, I judge the hell out of covers. I am a very cover-judgey person. I am an eyeball-rolling, vocal critic of book covers. There are so many bad ones. So, so bad. Especially among, but not limited to, indie publications and self-published books. Seriously, indie publishers of the world, you do your books and your authors a great disservice by taking that book by its cover thing to heart. Judge them!
I say this in particular today because I should’ve judged the cover of Tamara Drewe more closely. I only bought it at the recommendation of P. over at The Beguiling, who generally has interesting taste and who has never steered me wrong before. But the cover looked dull as hell and a quick flip through the insides did not do anything to dispel this first impression. And so it has languished on the shelf of books to be read, always passed over for something with a better cover. But then one day, I was looking for something that would lay flat while I read it (a book to eat a sandwich with, basically), and it was either this or a French non-fiction book about military strategy. You see how much the cover put me off?
But when I pulled it slowly, somewhat reluctantly off the shelf, my eyes still running over the other spines lined up there, still hoping for something else that would lay flat, I noticed that there were sheep having sex in the corner. And I thought, hmm, maybe this will be good after all. (Also, I don’t recommend staring at the main image on the cover for too long. You will notice that her pupils are weirdly placed/hidden and then you will see her as some kind of pupil-less monster. It cannot be unseen.)
Tamara Drewe is like a novel crashed into a comic book. It’s an interesting mash of actual comics, with blocks of text giving insight into the thinking of a particular character. Each character’s text is in a different font, allowing for quick identification of whose head you’re in. We start out with a writer arriving at the writers’ retreat Stonefield, “Dr Glen Larson, translator (MFA, University of Arkansas, PhD, Columbia, currently Visiting Professor at London Medical University)”. This listing of titles only becomes seriously pompous and indicative of Glen’s character when the next page introduces the co-owner of the countryside estate simply as “Beth Hardiman”.
Beth is married to Nicholas, a best-selling mystery author and unrepentant philanderer. She runs the retreat, managing all the authors’ needs, in addition to being the business side of her husband’s writing, fielding invitations to festivals, emails, and letters from aspiring authors, signing the latter herself since of course, she can forge her husband’s signature. Beth likes to imagine herself as being the lull in the storm of the world and creating a place of peace for authors to focus on writing. But it soon becomes clear she harbours a kind of grudge at the writing world, believing her husband would never have succeeded without her. “I transform his grubby longhand into double-spaced typescripts. I edit, research, contribute to plots, make his females characters convincing, suggest names and titles.” She comes across as a woman who left her own dreams for this man and needs to find a sense of self and of worth in the work she does for the man she gave it all up for.
The drama starts a couple pages in, just after we’ve gotten acquainted with Stonefield and some of its residents, and before the titular Tamara Drewe makes her appearance. Egos are fragile—these are writers, after all—and drama begets drama after drama in a natural snowballing. Nicholas is caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he and Beth have it out, all the writers and the farm staff hear the whole thing, Beth is mortified, and then ta-da! Beautiful neighbour moves in. Who is, of course, also a writer. And Tamara does end up being the centre of much of the ensuing drama, but the drama is not what makes this book so interesting. The characters are so deftly fleshed out, with all their weaknesses and neuroses on display, even though the characters themselves believe they are showing only their good sides. People do awkward things, try to fix them, and end up making things more awkward. Basically, real life made into a graphic novel.
The story and its conclusion are satisfying, and the style Simmonds employs suits the subject matter. The book just would not be as effective without the insight into characters’ minds afforded by the blocks of text surrounding the comics depicting the various scenes the characters are thinking about. And like any good artist, Simmonds makes clear just when what is happening, using full colour for the present and various shades of grey and brown for memories and recollections. And I do like her pencil, sketchy style, just loose enough to be expressive, but tight enough to sit next to the plain text.
And this is a book I thought I would not like because of the freaky, pupil-less monster lady on the cover. But if I had just taken a moment to look past that and see the sheep doing it in the corner, I would have realized that any book with sheep bonking on the cover is a book that I want to read. So to reiterate the lesson from the beginning of this post: Judge the cover. But make sure you judge it properly.
PS. ZOMG! They made it into a movie and it looks terrrrrrrrible! You probably don’t want to watch this. Just read the book.
PPS. It apparently also ran in the Guardian first, so check it out before you buy it.