The Tenderness of Stones is an autobiographical graphic novel that deals with the loss of a parent through the prism of surreal but totally transparent storytelling. I can only imagine that creating this novel was a cathartic experience for Marion Fayolle, I certainly hope so, it’s a brave thing to put something so personal into the public domain. This is an intelligent and heart-felt response to grief and the trauma caused by loss. Of course, one of the eternal themes of literature is grief and how we deal with what we call the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The Tenderness of Stones is Fayolle’s exploration of her own grief and addresses her father’s death. Grief is something everyone experiences in their own way, everyone seems to want to ‘reinvent the wheel’, but listening, talking and, even, reading can help. Normally, I would only claim that fiction can contribute to our understanding of the world in a broad sense (not fiction as therapy), but as Fayolle has drawn on her own pain to make sense of a catastrophic change in her world this book could help others experiencing similar trauma. I won’t be any more strident than that but I can’t think of a more valid raison d’etre for this emotionally intelligent book.
It opens on a beautiful spring day as the family are burying a monstrous weighty ‘stone’, they carry their father’s lung to its resting place. It’s an entity in its own right now, so big it can’t be missed, can’t slip away quietly, it’s the elephant in the room, it’s presence overwhelms all else. Only Father laughs at the absurdity, everyone is else is sombre. Now they watch their father, does he walk differently this ‘asymmetrical’ man?
The narrator muses on whether this is some big hoax. Now that Father can see how much the family and his friends care by the emotional goodbye to the lung perhaps he will call off the game. Of course, owning up will be difficult because it’s gone so far but . . . but there is no confession. Only days later the ‘men in white coats’ arrive again (anonymous, colourless). Perhaps with the sick part removed they are here to reassure the family – a kindness. Instead they now say that the nose has to go, he will breathe through his throat, they can attach the nose with a ribbon around the neck. They deliver the news in reassuring tones. Are the doctors reassuring or are the family just not listening properly, a portrait of denial, of wishing things to be better?
[The nose] “It had taking up a lot of space. His face was now roomier. His mouth was no longer in the shadows of that enormous nose, and his beard seem shinier. His neck had been long and empty. With the new jewel, it was dressed. We should have thought of it before. The transformation was a success.”
Now Father needs to pull a new lung behind him, he must remain attached to it at all times, like a dog on a leash or a piece of luggage, a child pulling a train on wheels. The drawings illustrate this, this is a book not without humour, in fact, it is touchingly witty and the surreal serves to highlight the absurdity of serious illness. Look on the bright side: the new lung is easier to trail than to carry on your back Mum says.
The family listen to closely to Father, monitor his breathing, desperate to be there should be need them. Now his lips must go, he didn’t need them anyway, he didn’t talk much. The lips speak:
“It serves him right. He should have used me more.”
The lips are locked in a cotton wool lined chest. Their father has to get used to his new face. Perhaps now he will get better, but no, of course, he won’t. He regresses, becomes a child, a disturbing role reversal. Mum becomes his mum, where does that leave the daughter? Ultimately . . .
This is a uplifting portrait of grief and love and the battle against the inevitability of life’s cycle – of fate. Many complex emotions and thoughts become themes in this novel. Simple drawings further the story and enhance the tragedy but also the absurdity and the humour.
The allusions in the text are clear and though the surreal approach might seem a way of dodging the idea of facing the issue head on it’s actually very direct.
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Brock. Brock is a poet and has captured the lyrical, punchy quality of Fayolle’s beautifully simple but intelligent writing. Quite an experience.
Paul Burke 4/5
The Tenderness of Stones by Marion Fayolle
New York Review of Books 9781681372983 hbk Sep 2019