One of the things we tend to do as thinking people is to intellectualize disease. The more educated a person gets, the more they tend to try to focus on the attributes of a disease: its effects on the person with the disease, the effects of the treatment of the disease on the sick person's body, the course of treatment, the costs of the medical care.
Judith Vanistendael’s wonderfully touching graphic novel When David Lost His Voice takes the opposite tack: this book treats cancer with emotion and passion, presenting a heartrending, often impressionistic look at what it means to live through having a family member with that horrible disease. Most movingly, this graphic novel presents cancer through the filter of both family members and the man with the disease, presenting a fascinating portrait of the ravages of illness on an entire family.
Vanistendael’s artwork also presents a different sort of book than many of the graphic novels that are published on this subject. Her art shifts, changes and progresses in empathetic ways, with a rich color palette, painted in watercolors. The linework and colors shift continually as the reader moves through the book, showing different states of mind for a reader — one moment deep rich watercolors showing a family at the zoo, the next a cleverly spooky bit of storytelling showing David's daughter seeing his bones through his skin, juxtaposed with a sequence showing skeletons dancing.
The art gives this book a wonderful sort of emotional weight to it. Maybe my favorite section is when nine-year-old Tamar and her father David take a short vacation on a lake. Father and daughter go boating and swimming together, a sweet chance for them to spend lots of time together while dad is still around.
But Vanistendael’s book takes a turn to the surreal when she puts us inside Tamar's head and shows the girl daydreaming about a conversation that she has with a mermaid. The art on this section of the book is lovely. The sequence feels like the art in a children's book — not surprising since Vanistendael has illustrated a number of children's books — and the whole sequence is a powerful reminder of the unique ways that young children perceive the world. The magic of Tamar's imagination is in tragic but fascinating contrast with the truth of her father's illness. The scene subtly highlights the heartbreak of this David's sickness and the pain that the young girl is feeling.
Vanistendael presents a similar set of scenes that show David's wife Paula, who accepts a design commission in Finland for five days. Yes, she's interested in the work, but Paula is also desperate to get away from her stress and worry over David, even for a week. She desperately needs a break to get away from the family home. But Paula can't escape the horror of the situation. In a sequence saturated in black, we see Paula meet a stranger as she walks a frozen lake. The couple dance, giving Paula a moment of rare peace, while Paula realizes that the stranger smells like David before he got sick.
The real power of When David Lost His Voice isn't with the story of David's cancer itself. The real power comes from the way that David's family reacts to his cancer. Life continues on while David quietly fights his horrible disease, but their lives are subtly different. The loss of their beloved family member is imminent and affects every aspect of their lives. Even when the kids try to escape from the hospital for a quick sleigh ride in the snow, they bring the sled back into the hospital, where they are scolded by a nurse.
When David Lost His Voice is a tremendously moving, gorgeously rendered graphic novel that will break your heart with its direct, empathetic style.