Book review: The Unravelling

Maggie Hulbert is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at Queen's University

 

(Broadview Press, 2017)

Graphic novels have emerged from the field of medical humanities as a powerful medium for telling stories — particularly stories of mental illness. Ellen Forney and David B. are two recent, best-selling graphic novelists who write about their experiences with mental illness and have broken ground for many new artists to carve their place in the mental health graphic novel genre. Clem and Olivier Martini, brothers and authors of The Unravelling, also deserve recognition as graphic novel trailblazers. The Unravelling is the second book that touches on their family’s experience with Olivier’s diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, this book also centres on their mother, Catherine — Olivier’s caretaker and roommate — who is rapidly losing her independence and cognitive abilities at age 89. It is a personal and emotional account of caregiving, as well as an angry lament of the state of Canada’s healthcare system for the mentally ill and ageing.

The uniqueness of their writing lies in the dual authorship. The premise is simple: Clem writes the narratives, while Olivier provides the accompanying illustrations. This dual narration imbues their books with an incredible amount of depth. An illustration by Olivier is not the mirror image of a story told by Clem — instead, each brother is telling their own story in tandem. One memorable example of this duality is towards the end of the book, when Clem is describing his struggle to not engage with his mother while she is having delusions. His writing is frustrated, angry, and regretful; he wonders, “What was the use of any of it?” The illustration by Olivier recounts a completely different scene in which Olivier and his mother are sitting in her room, saying that they love each other. These two tales pull together the realities of caregiving and portray its complexity; it is dynamic, involves the whole family, and has both incredible highs and the lowest of lows.

            Clem writes scathingly of the word “caregiving,” stating that it implies a binary in which “there is someone who gives care, and someone who gets it.” His and Olivier’s story is a testament to the reciprocity of caregiving, but also to the precarious nature of home care. When Catherine had to leave the condominium she and Olivier shared, the family learned of the immense gaps in the healthcare system for the ageing — and they are blisteringly unapologetic in their criticisms. Given the sheer volume of disappointing incidents found in The Unravelling, these critiques are entirely warranted. For example, on the transition ward of the hospital, Clem arrived to find Catherine had been left in a puddle of her own urine for most of the day. As a future physician, these accounts can be painful to read. But they also provide concrete examples of how individual physicians and healthcare practitioners can do better. While many systemic changes must undoubtedly be made, The Unravelling is testimony to the fact that something as simple as compassion and empathy on an individual level can make a world of difference.