Cartoonist Lee Lai has been teasing us with her debut graphic novel for years: those following her Instagram page got to see snippets of this work coming to fruition. So I, like many of her fans, loved Stone Fruit before it even came out. We also live in a city obsessed with its creators and creations, and when a Montreal author, such as Lee Lai, has a debut graphic novel with Fantagraphics, we come out to support. The hype around this book was very present in the community, and I do not think readers will be disappointed.
Lai uses a monochrome colour palette for this graphic novel, which gives the book a very bleak feeling, as though it is raining all the time, and happiness has been drained from every page. It is the right choice for the story being told. In a very interesting technique, she also employs an absence of shading, leaving the lined drawings on the white page to express lighter moods, helping us gauge how the characters are feeling from panel to panel. This jump from shaded to unshaded will even happen on the same page, showing how the characters’ emotions fluctuate through the conversations.
One of the most exciting illustration techniques in the book is connected to this little girl who brings them all so much joy. Lai sprinkles magical realism into her illustrations whenever Ray and Bron babysit Ness: all three of them turn into beautiful creatures on the page as they run free through the woods. It is the only time the main characters are happy, as they reconnect to a sense of childhood and freedom. Outside of the imaginary world they build for Ness, reality is sad, so they act as though they would like to stay wild things forever. These moments are tender and evocative.
Overall, Stone Fruit is an uplifting story about a terrible breakup. Lai implies that sometimes breaking up will make life better, even though you must go through hell to get to the other side – a message that could bring comfort to someone going through the experience.
It’s extremely exciting to see more and more queer narratives coming to the foreground of the literary scene. Although graphic novels have been an outlet to the queer community for decades, from Allison Bechdel to Mariko Tamaki, it is still important to celebrate this continued acceptance and new voices joining the conversation. Stone Fruit brings to mind another big literary hit from this year, American author Torrey Peters’s novel Detransition, Baby. Both books propose alternative, inclusive family dynamics to the nuclear family model. Like Peters, Lai is giving us real women who, despite their different identities, are linked by raising a child. I always love a book that questions parenting and motherhood, and explores the different shapes and forms they can come in. It takes all sorts of inclusive villages to raise a child. I am delighted that we have queer women writers like Lai bringing their much-needed perspective.mRb