The House that Groaned by Karrie Fransman

12th Mar 2012

The House that Groaned by Karrie Fransman

It has a fun website, which is the first thing about it that drew my attention, on which you are introduced to all of the characters.

I wouldn’t recommend visiting the website if you’re planning on reading the book, though, or at least not until after you’ve read it.

The quirky character notes online that I enjoyed reading before I had the book in my hands turned out to be pretty much all these characters have got.

They all have one secret or defining characteristic that can be summed up in one sentence, and they never do anything that isn’t directly related to that one thing.

So the woman who was once overweight but got really into exercise and salad is now skinny and unhappy never does anything that isn’t somehow related to her obsession with her weight.

The guy who retouches photographs of models for a living is obsessed with everything being perfect and doesn’t want to touch anything in the real world… it’s kind of boring me to go over it again, actually.

The artwork is good: Fransman is certainly a talented artist. However, because of the style she’s chosen, in which all the characters have very similar, stylised, non-expressive faces (except for the diseased women that one of the characters chases around), it can be hard to tell exactly what’s happening.

One of the strengths of the book is the non-verbal storytelling; we find out a lot through the drawings, rather than dialogue.

But, along with the faces being fairly non-expressive, it uses a very limited colour palette, which while effective at expressing the constant blue mood that is beneath everything, often makes the book murky rather than clear.

I’ve seen sample panels online that are a lot easier to read than the book in front of me, despite being low-res jpgs, simply because the contrast between the colours is stronger.

The book has a fairly unexpected ending, and although I won’t ruin it for you it ends with a connection between two characters that you had not thought would happen.

It feels like Fransman has mistaken an undercutting of the cute expected ending with a stranger, “darker” ending for a real sense of depth. But it’s such an absurd subversion that it doesn’t bring any depth: the book only really works on the surface-level, still.

I have a bigger problem with this book, however. The book’s representation of characters with illnesses or diseases is fairly flippant and stereotypical – they’re either treated like fetish objects or like jokes, with no real need to actually explore them as characters.

Because the book never develops any of its characters beyond giving them a basic stereotype that they must stick to at all times, this causes real problems when it has characters who belong to minority groups that are often fairly flippantly dismissed anyway.

It may well be trying to show the value and beauty of living lives outside a strict idea of society’s norm, but the ending of the book (which reduces a lot of the plot to a thin meet cute-style joke), and the refusal to give any character any internal, humanising contradictions leaves it feeling undeveloped and cold.

I feel really uneasy about the almost freakshow-like aspects of this book – and there’s no internal attempt to provoke any kind of deeper thought or criticism with it.

Characters’ disabilities and troubled pasts exist only as scenery or stereotypes; this book says that they cannot be anything other than characters’ sole defining characteristics.

Want to see for yourself? Published in January, you can buy it in paperback for £9.74.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Anybody who wants an unchallenging read for their next Sunday curled up with a pot of tea in their creaking old house.

Other recommended reading: If you want to browse for something a bit stranger or more exciting, try The Best American Comics 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel, or try Laura Oldfield Ford‘s Savage Messiah for a truly bleak look at London in 2012.

Charlotte Geater