Love on the Isle of Dogs by Jude Cowan Montague is an emotional memoir; it invites the reader into a hard and beautiful journey of love, mental health, and life in 1990s London. It tells the same story twice, first in a comic strip format and then again through narrative prose. Each readthrough in both is refreshing; the individual versions complement each other and offers new insights.
The story follows the true account of Montague’s own life in 1990s London. The detailed descriptions of her environment really bring the city to life. The graphic novel ponders over the intimate relationship the land plays in the story. Montague lingers on memories such as lilac flowers, and putting together their home garden with her husband. In the end, the house her husband built for them on the Isle of Dogs serves as a private landmark of her own history within the city. The details about life in London would likely resonate with readers that are more familiar with the setting. But the images are still greatly appreciated for readers with an outsider’s perspective.
The main theme of Montague’s story is love – albeit an impossible one. She rekindles a relationship with a brilliant man and it becomes an all-consuming love. She describes it as blinding and constantly questions her impulsive and wild nature that dictated her decisions. Eventually, her husband’s mental health takes a toll on their marriage. She is left to manage the difficulties of being a young mother on her own. Still, her relationship with her child is beautiful and brings a welcomed element of happiness to the story.
Montague’s experience caring for her husband while he struggles with psychosis gives the reader a look at the mental health institutions of the time. She mentions policies like Care in the Community, and the widespread change that was rolling through these same institutions. Her husband becomes paranoid that everyone in his life is out to get him, including his wife. In the end, she faces the harsh reality that “love isn’t a magical cure” and that “it can’t do everything”.
The art panels hold impressionist qualities. Since the images are drawn the way Montague remembers them, they have a rough nature. However, some images quickly shift to include more details and careful lines. It’s as if these memories hold some significance to her. Perhaps the most impressive images focus on the depiction of her husband’s mental state. The drawings are darker, more chaotic, and intrusive. At one point in the story, her husband describes the black and white as “competence and safety”. Therefore, her decision to use black and white is an interesting nod to this discussion.
Montague’s writing is introspective; she takes a look back at her life and constantly questions the decisions she made and the motivations behind them. The writing is eloquent and poetic. It flows just as much as the art does. Because of the nonfiction narrative, the story acts like a conversation between the author and the reader. There is a sense of trust, like telling a story to her closest of confidants. In essence, Love on the Isle of Dogs is about love; whether that be romantic love, motherhood, or the love for a city. The two formats to the story make it a unique experience. Montague treats mental health honestly and respectfully while recounting the effects it had on her life.
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