Thursday, 15 February 2018

Irmina by Barbara Yelin Review

Set in 1930s England, Irmina, a young German exchange student, befriends Howard, a black scholarship student from Barbados attending Oxford, but money problems force her back to Germany, prematurely ending their burgeoning relationship. Before she can make it back to England, WW2 kicks off – will the two ever see each other again?

I was really impressed, not to mention thoroughly enjoyed, Barbara Yelin’s Irmina. The comic is partly based on her grandmother’s letters and diaries, as well as research on the time, which convincingly recreates an historically accurate vision of what everyday life in Nazi Germany was like for ordinary people. What’s really compelling though is seeing Irmina change from a liberal, headstrong young woman into a supporter of the Nazis, turning her eyes away from the increasingly flagrant injustices against the Jews.

Through Irmina, Yelin shows how many Germans came to enable the Third Reich through silence, as well as indirectly through standing with loved ones like Irmina’s SS officer husband, and the cost that complicity wrought upon their psyche in the post-war years. She doesn’t make excuses for people like her grandmother, instead succeeding in making her life choices understandable, even relatable, given the difficult time.

The story certainly has the air of tragedy about it though, that a once-promising student who could’ve been anything became who she did after choosing the path of fascism, particularly contrasted with Howard, who made such positive differences with his life through more progressive efforts. Yelin further highlights Irmina’s passivity by making her namesake, Howard’s daughter, a soprano who makes her living with her voice, compared to Irmina herself, who chose to silence her voice by not speaking up against the Nazis.

Yelin’s scratchy art is the only aspect of the book I wasn’t very taken with. Otherwise, I found the book to be a very well written, gripping and oftentimes powerfully moving read with several moments of tangible poignancy. A very good, artful and important comic that vividly connects the reader to the past, Irmina both entertains and enlightens.

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