Writer/Artist: Naomi Nowak
Publisher: NBM Publishing
Remember the song ‘Luka’ by Suzanne Vega, one of a variety of female singer-songwriters that filled the American airwaves during the 1980s? Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the song, but those that were enjoyed the personal, introspective perspective that Ms. Vega brought to the lyrics, as if Luka was someone you might know personally as well. What does this have to do with this review? Well, it strikes me as funny, and not a little ironic, that the main character (and narrator) of Naomi Nowak’s Unholy Kinship is also named Luca (close enough), since the reader receives a very intimate portrait of her life inside and out. It is a first person examination of personal perception, mental illness, and the various confusions that surround anyone’s life. Like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, we are presented with a main character whose point of view may or may not be literal reality, but the tales told in each are almost fairy tale-like in their execution and imagery, which Nowak wonderfully illustrates in Unholy Kinship. Ms. Vega’s song, though concerning physical abuse, does have a single lyric that may or may not shed light on Luca’s account of life with her sister Gae: “Maybe it’s because I’m crazy.” Nowak leaves the answer up to us.
Where this graphic novel truly shines is in the detailed relationship between Luca and Gae. Gae has inherited a mental disability that has institutionalized her mother, so Luca has had the chore of raising her even though she began parenting as a child herself. Theirs is not a normal sibling relationship, but the extent of their love for one another is boundless, overcoming the shocks of isolation and realization that occur throughout this graphic novel. Still, Luca feels the strain of her sister’s care on her social and school life, sometimes feeling uncontrollable guilt about her wayward thoughts or a sense that she doesn’t belong in the civilized world of her best friend Jasmine. Then, there are the not-so-subtle reminders of the past: of her atheist upbringing and her parent’s controversial work with monkeys. This past quickly comes into focus as the future welfare of Gae is questioned, bringing back ghosts long thought dead. In her moments of clarity, Gae causes Luca to wonder if she might be inheriting the same mental illness that has already claimed two women in her immediate family. But, is what Luca sees and dreams about all in her head? As you can tell from this description, Unholy Kinship is a multi-layered examination that will have you thinking about the world you inhabit as well, all while you gasp in astonishment at the story you are viewing, which may or may not be what it seems. Nowak has no trouble creating a compelling story with sympathetic characters you will remember long after reading this.
We have to remember that Nowak also illustrated this fine volume, and her work as an illustrator is just as fine as her writing. When Nurse Scheffer enters their home life, Luca and Gae interact less and less with each other, which is depicted nicely on a page with two page-long panels separated by snowflakes and various banal images of daily life. On one side of the page is Gae, head in her hands, thinking, “I hate this! I hate her!” (The her she is referring to is Nurse Scheffer). On the other side, Luca has her head down on her desk, surrounded by books and papers, thinking “Too much work.” Just looking at this page explains the cold, uncomfortable nature of separation between two very close siblings. Another great page is near the end of the volume, as Luca deals with the possibility that her father may have been killed. Razor-like images of death fly around her sleeping head, each image depicting a different method for murder, and all of the small panels fringed with dripping blood. This kind of originality in page construction is what makes Unholy Kinship such a delight to behold visually. Nowak is truly a talent worth noticing for the future.
My complaints are scant and shouldn’t be considered when buying this volume, but I’ll throw them out there anyway if only for constructive criticism. The lettering throughout the volume can be a little distracting at times, lacking the polish that epitomizes the artwork. Also, there are some scenes featuring Gae and Luca that poses them in a model-like fashion, detailing an attractiveness that is never really approached in this work. However, like I said, these minor complaints should not dissuade you in any way from running out right now and picking up this graphic novel. NBM has struck gold again, and I only hope the gold rush continues for many years to come.
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