Broadly speaking, coming-of-age tales are ostentatious affairs. They’re about profound discoveries, rites of passage and moments of epiphany on the road to whatever is loosely defined as adulthood. Sophie Yanow’s The Contradictions subverts those expectations with its downbeat, often subdued, but nonetheless always compelling account of a student hitchhiking summer trip in Europe. The realisations and revelations here are far more complex in nature, as encapsulated in the book’s title. Originally published online The Contradictions earned Yanow considerable acclaim, including a 2018 Broken Frontier Award nomination. This month sees the strip collected in print via indie and alt specialists Drawn & Quarterly.
The Contradictions is set around a student placement in Europe, presenting a mix of fictionalised experiences and autobiography. Studying in Paris, Sophie is lonely and somewhat adrift. Her life changes when she meets anarchist and activist Zena whose radical politics and self-assurance have an alluring quality. The duo decide to embark on a tour of Europe, taking in cities like Amsterdam, Ghent and Berlin on a disorganised and often random cross-countries jaunt. Along the way Sophie will find her ideals challenged, her initial enthusiasm for Zena’s worldview changing, and tensions rising as the two learn more about each other.
What will be recognisable to many here from their own experiences is Yanow’s depiction of those formative university days. A time when for many the desire to question what we knew and had been told about the world around us, to interrogate the standards and values we had been taught, and to rebel against conformity became paramount in our lives. Zena’s influence, then, becomes the catalyst for not simply a geographical journey but also a metaphorical one. For Sophie it’s a journey that will end up being not so much one of self-discovery perhaps as of self-exploration, as she finds the world is a far more complex place – one replete with contradictions – than she originally realised.
One of Yanow’s greatest storytelling strengths here is in allowing us to experience events along with the characters without overt commentary, to invite us to be as much observers as we are audience so that we evaluate events and the shifting dynamics in Sophie and Zena’s friendship for ourselves. The visual clarity of Yanow’s cities and locales adds an extra layer to characterisation as her gangly-limbed protagonist stumbles awkwardly through their environs, emphasising and reflecting her own often gauche and sometimes naïve outlook on life. Panel-to-panel pacing is sublime in its telling subtlety, and used exquisitely in its dry delivery of the book’s restrained emotional beats.
The best slice-of-life work ensures we feel so invested in its characters that we leave its pages wondering as much about the story yet to come for them off the page as the one we have just read on it. That’s certainly the case with The Contradictions, ensuring the questions it asks about Sophie’s idealism and what it means to be a “good person” remain with us long after we come to the end of this particular chapter in her life. Sophie Yanow’s longest-form work to date is also her most confident and accomplished.
Sophie Yanow (W/A) • Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95 CAD/$24.95 USD
Review by Andy Oliver
(Look for an interview with Sophie Yanow later on this week at Broken Frontier)