Books

book review

Graphic memoirs by refugee, artist-editor look at how little control we exert over our lives

An image from Kristen Radtke’s “Imagine Wanting Only This.’’
“IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS”/KRISTEN RADTKE
An image from Kristen Radtke’s “Imagine Wanting Only This.’’

Obsession, a sense of wondering, and a fierce and searching curiosity drive two new graphic memoirs. With elegant writing and arresting drawings, Kristen Radtke’s “Imagine Wanting Only This’’ and Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do’’ both grapple with the limits of how much understanding our past can help us comprehend our present.

Radtke’s story opens with a beloved uncle beset with a rare, inherited heart condition. “It’s just like love,” he explains to his young niece. “You can’t see it, but it exists.” His death when she’s in art school coincides with a trip she takes to Gary, Ind., curious to see its tattered streets and crumbling, abandoned buildings. The events set off a restlessness in Radtke and a desire to seek out abandoned places, where humanity has vanished, or fled, or evacuated, and time and nature have reclaimed all.

Radtke, managing editor of Sarabande Books, travels to Italy, Chicago, Iowa City, Iceland, to Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines. She wanders “through gutted mining towns and looted industrial buildings, bombed-out barracks and contaminated environmental zones in countries whose languages I couldn’t speak, places that excrete warnings of the wars and quakes and depressions they’ve witnessed.” But this is no ruin porn. The story veers towards a question much more complex and compelling: “What is permanence?”

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Radtke balances the personal — insomnia, failed love, her own heart ills, and loss — with larger historical forces and events. Her atmospheric black and white drawings shift between close-ups of telling details — a pile of mail on the floor, a single hanging bulb in a garage — and powerful full-page illustrations. She is a master of silhouette and shadow, of negative space, evoking a sense of potent isolation.

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In the most powerful, and unexpected section, she explores a deadly, catastrophic fire in 1871 in Peshtigo, Wisc., and how American and British militaries studied it “to recreate firestorm conditions for bombing campaigns” in World War II.

Out of the flames in Peshtigo came the AN-M69, an incendiary bomb that burned Dresden and Tokyo. In a series of troubling images, Radtke presents the plans for houses built in Utah modeled after those in Germany built to test how they would burn when bombed. “The beds were placed in pairs. The crib was placed next to the bed.” Two lines of chilling understatement coupled with the clean strokes of her images, and Radtke conveys the brutality of war, and the careening of events and their unexpected consequences.

Her wanderings lead her to conclude that though we can know some things about the lives we make, “[w]e forget that everything will become no longer ours,” and “someday there will be nothing left that you have touched.”

What we touch — whom we touch — and how the past shapes the present are questions that Thi Bui interrogates in her saga about her parents’ experiences in wartime Vietnam, her experiences as a refugee in the United States, and how sorrow and trauma become inherited traits. Bui worked on the book for years, but it’s arrival feels urgent amid today’s travel bans and growing refugee crisis.

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The book opens vivid and raw with Bui giving birth to her son, and the realization that “[f]amily is now something that I have created — and not just something I was born into.” She lives near her parents and siblings, but an undeniable distance exists. “I keep looking toward the past, tracing our journey in reverse . . . over the ocean through the war seeking an origin story that will set everything right.”And so Bui rewinds and takes us to the harrowing births of her siblings in Vietnam, and further back to the childhoods of her mother, who isn’t so eager to recall the past, and her father, whom she feared as a child not knowing that “the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own.”

Bui is a master of facial expression. She expresses so much in her renderings of the angle of an eyebrow, the tense line of a mouth. And her use of ochre wash over black ink lends the feel of sepia-tinted history in her recreations of the past. She illustrates the horrors of war — smoke, chaos, fear — and the trials of making a home in a foreign land, stripped of all that’s familiar, and confronts her inheritance, her “Refugee reflex,” “the inexplicable need and extraordinary ability to RUN when [expletive] hits the fan.”

The book swings back to present-day Bui, her son now 10 years old, and she wonders how much of herself was “stamped into my bone, predestined?” and whether she’s passed on a gene for sorrow. The book closes on a note of hope, of our ability to carry the weight of the past and find freedom in the future.

IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS

By Kristen Radtke

Pantheon, 278 pp., $29.95

THE BEST WE COULD DO

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By Thi Bui

Abrams, 336 pp., $24.95

Nina MacLaughlin can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.