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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

'Stone Fruit' by Lee Lai


From the BLURB:

An exhilarating and tender debut graphic novel that is an ode to the love and connection shared among three women and the child they all adore. 

Bron and Ray are a queer couple who enjoy their role as the fun weirdo aunties to Ray's niece, six-year-old Nessie. Their playdates are little oases of wildness, joy, and ease in all three of their lives, which ping-pong between familial tensions and deep-seated personal stumbling blocks. As their emotional intimacy erodes, Ray and Bron isolate from each other and attempt to repair their broken family ties — Ray with her overworked, resentful single-mother sister and Bron with her religious teenage sister who doesn't fully grasp the complexities of gender identity. Taking a leap of faith, each opens up and learns they have more in common with their siblings than they ever knew. 

At turns joyful and heartbreaking, Stone Fruit reveals through intimately naturalistic dialog and blue-hued watercolor how painful it can be to truly become vulnerable to your loved ones — and how fulfilling it is to be finally understood for who you are. Lee Lai is one of the most exciting new voices to break into the comics medium and she has created one of the truly sophisticated graphic novel debuts in recent memory.

‘Stone Fruit’ is a 2021 Fantagraphics graphic novel by Australia creator Lee Lai, who is based in Quebec. 

I think I’ve had a reading-hangover since finishing ‘Stone Fruit’ a few days ago. A novel of such singular brilliance and tender truth that managed to not overwhelm me as I crawl towards the end of 2021, but still pierced something in my conscience and clung so that I’ve been thinking about it ever since … 

The book is about Ray and Bron – a queer couple who a couple days a week mind Ray’s little niece, Nessie for her sister Amanda who is still juggling the messiness of life since her partner walked out on her and her daughter. Bron is struggling with their long-term mental health and the pressures of trying to exist in their own head while still trying to navigate life with Ray. When it all becomes too much, they move home to their conservative Christian parents and both Ray, Bron, Nessie and Amanda have to learn to cope in the aftermath of the complicated relationship fallout.  

This book is stunning. On every level, it’s a knockout. Bron, Ray and Nessie when they hang out together – in treasured moments of elaborate imaginary play – Lai depicts them as serpentine, monster-esque creatures with a face full of fangs, large eyes and shifting skin and talons … the mask drops however, when Nessie’s mother and Ray’s sister Amanda enters the scene and they’re snapped back to reality and have to put their public personas back on. But these mythological-looking creatures that they are together feel like their true souls on the page, and the book is largely about them trying to get back to that state of play and openness that comes crashing down when Bron’s depressive state overwhelms their relationship with Ray and they return home for some time and space.

As both Bron and Ray navigate the slow breaking down of their relationship, they each find solace in extending olive-branches with their respective sisters – Bron’s whom they abandoned when they unceremoniously left home and cut ties with their family, and Ray’s Amanda who is still dealing with the aftermath of her partner abandoning her, and feelings of inadequacy as a mother to Nessie who witnessed Amanda’s own fragile mental state. 

Something I love in Lee Lai’s writing is the slow parcelling out of information … there’s no info-dumping here, and details of these character’s lives are revealed very naturally amongst characters, deep into the novel and when trust is starting to be established again, honest conversations had. Readers are never left in the dark, but rather we take on a child-like bystander quality similar to Nessie, where we can feel and sense that something is wrong or left unsaid – but it takes a while for these truths to come; but when they do, they’re all the more precious and important for being hard-won and entrusted to us. It’s a very beautiful and tender mode of storytelling here, still waters running deep … and when the current comes, it did take my breath away. Little revelations feel like tremors on the page for their build-up. 

I really loved this. I read a Publishers Weekly article where Lee Lai spoke about being a trans Asian-Australian cartoonist, and the Australian “creative comics scene is strong but the industry is still emerging,” and that’s very true. I loved the small hints of Australia in here (mentions of ‘Play School’ and Henny Penny) but I can see that something very special was able to be created via the wonderful Fantagraphics publisher, and I’m just so grateful for it.

‘Stone Fruit’ is undoubtedly in my Top 5 Favourite Reads of 2021. It’s one of those beautiful books that I didn’t realise I needed until I was deep into it, and then I was just so grateful for everyone who’d raved about it all year and paved the way for me to scoop it up. I will hold it very dear indeed. 


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