Picture the scene; I was in a panel discussion at LICAF 2017, enjoying a charming talk by Hannah Berry, Darryl Cunningham and Fumio Obata called Telling the Truth, exploring the creation of graphic non-fiction and telling true stories in comic art. In the questions afterwards I was brave enough to raise my hand.
“Do you think it is possible to make a graphic novel with an unreliable narrator?”
I explained our concept of a narrative voice that sought to consistently underplay and minimise her sufferings, with the pictures showing the true severity of her situation.
“Yes,” said Hannah, “And I want to read that book! Who here wants to read that book?”
I could feel myself going pink as the room filled with raised hands.
Well, here you are, you lovely encouraging sequential-art family: here is that book!
What I did not explain at the time was that this unreliable narrator was also Telling the Truth. The story of Carrie’s Cough is an unheard, true account of a woman’s life in the 1880s, told in her own words.
Not only the plot, but the very text of this book is taken entirely from the letters between Caroline Robinson and her siblings. Like other women of her generation, Caroline has no say in her future. Stoic but fragile, she becomes a reluctant pioneer when her family decides she should try a hot climate for the sake of her health. Her letters are written with such affection and intimate humour that she is easy to love, as are her wildly optimistic brother Charles and her warm-hearted and steady sister Florence.
This irresistibly poignant story charts the devastating consequences of one of Charles’ characteristically ambitious plans. As Caroline’s sense of love and duty guide her pen to accentuate the positive in all things, Scarlett has illustrated the letters with another version of ‘the truth’ — showing privations and distresses that Caroline is too kind to mention.
There is no Victorian stiffness or formality in the language of the letters. You are soon drawn in to the hopes and dreams of the family; through schoolgirl gossip, a fascination with a handsome Curate, and the strange wonder of the New World. If Australia seems far away to us, for Caroline it must have felt like another planet.
Whilst this book is a heart-wrenching read, you will be amused by Scarlett’s characteristic comic details, as well as some stunning Victoriana. There have been times during the production of this book that Scarlett has bewailed the amount of ornate soft furnishings involved, but the effort has been worth it. My own historical knowledge comes entirely from fiction, and so cannot be trusted, but Scarlett has made Caroline’s world so very real and solid — from gas lamps to horse-drawn transport — that I feel closer than ever to our truth-telling unreliable friend.