Rating: ★★★★★ 

Stitches:  A Memoir, by David Small. W.W. Norton & Company (2009), 329 pages.

This memoir is the biggest surprise of the year for me. I had not intended to read Stitches as I’m not much of a graphic book fan, but the nonstop rave reviews it kept receiving compelled me to stop by the library to take a look. I sat down, planning to flip through a few pages and then move on to other things, but found myself unable to put it down. I read the entire book sitting right there on the library floor (couldn’t even tear myself away long enough to find a chair). And then I started over from the beginning and read the whole thing a second time.

I have read many, many, very sad memoirs (too many I sometimes think) but never have I been emotionally overwhelmed in quite this way before. Small tells the story of his life from age six through adolescence, trapped in a house with what is surely one of the angriest mothers ever to appear in a memoir, and of his attempts to escape into a fantasy world. The author’s drawings, particularly the facial expressions of his characters, are so subtle and specific the people in this book come through as utterly real. I feel as though I know this mother in a way no amount of verbal description could possibly have communicated. Small is equally good at expressing feelings even when the scene lacks people—the illustration on page 259 begins eight pages of nothing but rain, and is one of the saddest, most moving parts of the book.

As a lover of words, before reading this memoir I would have said the best graphic novel cannot begin to compete with the best novel written solely in words. I now believe I was wrong about that. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the visceral, kicked-in-the-stomach impact Small’s drawings have had on me and why this is so different from my experiences with traditional memoirs. It seems that words have to be translated in one’s brain into meaning, which creates a bit of distance from the feelings being expressed, whereas images appear to bypass one’s brain altogether and land directly in one’s body. My experience reading Stitches was physical—exhaustion, nausea, pounding heart, stomach twisted in knots—much more than intellectual.

Though I don’t plan to pick up every new graphic work that comes along, I will be paying much more attention to this form of book in the future and, in particular, to everything David Small creates. Stitches is an absolute must-read for all lovers of memoir—whether you think you like graphic stories or not.


Reviewed by Cindy Blackett