Years of the Elephant

Review by Ed Sizemore

The book opens with the unexpected suicide of Charles Germonprez’s son Jack. He jumps off the top of their apartment building and dies on the front stoop. Charles and his wife find out when the police show up at their door to notify them of the death. For several days, Charles has to walk past the chalk outline of his son to leave the building. We see the devastating effects that Jack’s death has on Charles and the various heartbreaking ways he tries to come to terms with the loss of his beloved son.

Years of the Elephant cover
Years of the Elephant
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As Paul Gravett points out in his introduction, Linthout tells the story of Charles’ grief without any of the traditional narrative tools. There is no narration in the book, no text boxes to indicate how much time passes between each event, not even signals to indicate when we have moved between Charles’ imagination and the real world. In a sense, we are getting a raw look at Charles’ grief. This can be disorienting at times, and I had to read through the book twice to really get a handle on what was actually happening.

For example, early in the book, Charles thinks that he is handling Jack’s death very well and doesn’t believe that it’s had much of an effect on him. So what I assume is the next day, Charles heads off to work. Things start out normal enough. Suddenly, Charles hears his boss cluck like a chicken. During a meeting, Charles is convinced his boss is sitting on something and then realizes it’s an egg. He tells one of his co-workers the boss is laying eggs and hiding them in his office. Naturally, the co-worker thinks he’s joking. Later, Charles sneaks into the boss’ office and sees all these eggs, which then hatch into mini versions of his boss. Charles’ delusion is presented as if it’s really happening. Only after you’ve completely read through the event and see his co-worker’s reactions are you able to separate fact from fantasy.

Part of my lack of understanding is because Charles’ experiences are far outside the range of my own. I’m not a father, so I can’t image what it would be like to lose a son, let alone one under such tragic circumstances. I’ve never know anyone who was so devastated they were literally driven mad by grief.

I don’t want to imply that this book isn’t well-written or emotionally gripping. Linthout is a master storyteller and effectively communicates Charles’ soul-numbing anguish and the psychosis he suffers as a result of his grief. It’s not a pleasant story. Linthout doesn’t temper the tragedy with humor like Azuma did with Disappearance Diary. This is a straightforward tale of a bizarre time in Charles’ life, and the reader needs to be prepared for anything to happen.

The artwork is left in the rough pencil stages. Linthout has chosen not to ink the final solid pencil lines or erase the rough guide lines. Normally, I find this style of art very off-putting; however, it works here because it matches the raw narrative style. Perfect art would distract, if not outright contradict, the emotional honesty of the book. The art itself is effective in communicating the mood of each sub-story. Flipping through the book, you can easy tell what Charles is feeling in each panel by the drawings alone.

Years of the Elephant is haunting. It’s a book that takes time to process and so lingers with you after you’re finished reading. What makes the book all the more poignant is that it’s based on Linthout’s own experiences of having a son commit suicide. Linthout has let us see into a dark time in his life. He has done so with honesty and humility. He doesn’t make excuses for Charles’ behavior or attempt to sugar-coat his grief. The book offers no answers to those grieving. Linthout simply shares his own experiences as way of sympathizing. For those that find themselves in similar circumstances, there is a list of links to find help in coping with loss. Years of the Elephant is a moving book that offered me a glimpse into another man’s soul, and I hope I’ve come away a more sympathetic person.

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