Barbara Yelin‘s Irmina has a haunting, cinematic quality to it. A troubled character study masquerading as a love story mostly set against the Second World War and its aftermath, it’s an exquisite yet emotionally demanding read. If you’ve been a fan of publisher SelfMadeHero’s works for as long as we have, Irmina may make you draw comparisons with their other romance-based epics, including The Sculptor and Ruins. However, Irmina is far more resonant with its emotions. Irmina downplays the humour found in Ruins and lacks the fantasy element of The Sculptor, in the process not bothering to mask its emotions behind a gimmick. There’s an unsettlingly raw feel to this story, surely helped by Yelin basing the book somewhat on letters she found written by her grandmother.
However, Irmina is very much a work of fiction, albeit inspired by the memories Yelin has uncovered. The character of Irmina herself could encapsulate any strong-minded individual who’s choices and chances in life are scuppered thanks to the horrors of war. Split into three chapters, Irmina follows our heroine as she travels from Germany to England to study at a typewriting school, where she meets the dapper Oxford student Howard. They share in each other’s strong-mindedness, they gradually fall for each other, they plan to abscond to Barbados, then the rise of Nazi Germany tightens its grip, snatching Irmina from a seemingly perfect life.
What follows is exquisitely heartbreaking to read, as we see Irmina’s life and very personality descend into something far less than what we want to see her become. Life in Nazi Germany presents her with a new man, a family, something of a career, but not without a sense of hope for her being crushed. As the chapters progress, war takes its toll on all involved, and Yelin radiates a potent sense of despair for Irmina, as promises of shared victory for the German people crumble beyond control.
Yelin’s artwork is also a joy to indulge in. It’s rough and sketchy, yet delicate in tone, shadow and detail. Whenever there’s an emotional beat in the story, Yelin never miss the cue with letting the artwork bring those emotions to the centre. Her landscapes are as enthralling as her characters as well, as we travel through countries and time-zones that are all given fresh textures of colour and style.
Artwork, characters and story come together in a read that’s oddly satisfying in its own vagueness. There’s no serious happily-ever-after here, only soft ambiguity in which the reader is invited to fill the gaps on these character’s end result. Sometimes that tactic doesn’t have a lot of heart in fiction, but in Irmina‘s case those gaps come almost as a welcome tonic for the reader to insert some sense of happiness for Irmina.
No matter how much of Irmina is based on truth and how much of it is pure fiction, it’s an astounding piece of graphic literature. SelfMadeHero excel in publishing the weird and the wonderful, but sometimes they place such emphasis on those two that a truly great read sometimes gets smothered, i.e. Ruins and The Sculptor. Irmina is beautifully different from those books. Easily the best title SelfMadeHero has put out this year, Irmina is a gracefully epic tale of losing your identity through circumstances beyond your control, set against a backdrop of war and romance.
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