This book pulls no punches. With mature themes, complex plots and impressive cross-hatching, author Posy Simmonds depicts a world in which life and morality are as tangled and confusing as the Poincaré conjecture.
The first words tell us 'Gemma has been in the ground for three weeks now' so I am giving little away by telling you the protagonist dies, the rest of the book working its way toward this event through flashbacks and diary entries.
Gemma is the pretty, creative (she is an illustrator) second wife of Charlie Bovery, who, bored with London, buys an old house in rural Normandy. Posy Simmonds, a great observer of others, here seems to be drawing upon personal experience - she married an older divorcee, with children from the previous marriage. She also spent time in France, finishing her schooling at the Sorbonne.
At the same time there are other attributes in Gemma that might not be biographical - the adultery and boredom for example - Posy being happily married for about 40 years. However, many of her characters are more satirical portraits, drawn with a degree of scorn. They are from the literary classes - writers and columnists from broadsheet newspapers - like those that Posy Simmonds contributed to.
The ex-wife of Charlie is a wonderful portrayal of a divorced woman, hounding and nagging her ex-husband, who, in turn is an utterly convincing character, avoiding conflict by refusing to discuss anything at all - in fact sweeping all problems under the carpet, including finances, particularly tax, which eventually catches up with him.
The crux of the story is the similarity between Gemma Bovery and Madame Bovery, Flaubert's adulterous and bored character, and the neighbour, Raymond Joubert, who is fascinated by it. I find the literary references refreshing, in a genre largely developed for children - although this should not be a surprise for an author who for many years wrote for the Guardian (in fact Gemma Bovery was originally serialized there).
There is certainly something 'Hogarthian' about Posy's work. Hogarth is often thought of being the father of sequential art, yet his subject matter and satirical treatment seem to mirror Posy's work, and this work is, in some ways, a morality tale. Posy does not flinch from showing the pain that adultery and betrayal inflict, and in her works, people who do bad things (sometimes) get their comeuppance. This book also reminds me of Georgian literature, such as Jane Austin and Oliver Goldsmith, with their pastoral landscapes, yet her work is more post-modern, with few simple answers and morals offered to the reader.
This archaic style is continued in the illustrative style - reminiscent of Edward Ardizzone, with his cross-hatching, or even Ernest Shepard and John Tenniel. Her work is in the tradition of classic book illustration rather than cartooning, giving it a sense of the past which brings something extra to the traditional world she portrays. Posy is a consummate illustrator, who effortlessly moves from loose lines, to a tighter style, and then to a classy cross-hatching, and line and wash. She has paid her dues, particularly whilst working for newspapers, with their demanding deadlines and has learnt to think on her feet, making up the story as she goes along, adapting and changing the storyline and details on the hoof. Her style is certainly not classic comic book, but a combination of written prose, illustration, and sequential captions - slightly daunting for readers of strictly ordered comic books like those of Herge, but something you very quickly get used to.
The faces of her characters are particularly expressive, and she often works in front of a mirror, making faces until she find the appropriate one, and drawing it. She is also a real stickler for detail, agonizing over small details, such as the breed of cows in the field, in another of her books, 'Tamara Drewe'.
The one aspect of the book I found unconvincing was the ending, when a new neighbour arrives, called Jane Eyre. This seemed a weak joke to finish on - almost like the punchline of a comic sketch - and it felt unnecessary, given the quality of what preceded it.
A big screen version should be hitting cinemas in 2014, with Gemma Arterton (who starred in Stephen Frear's version of Tamara Drewe) playing her namesake, Gemma Bovery. It looks like it will be an Anglo-French affair, which should make it an interesting adaptation.
Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com