Essex County by Jeff Lemire has crawled into my blood, my veins, my very being, and changed me. And the daunting aspect of writing this review is, nothing I say will do this piece of literature the justice it deserves. Everything about Essex County and its characters is beautiful, and lonely, and stark, and satisfying, and real. There is magic flowing between these pages that made its way into my heart and mind and I know will never leave.
Jeff Lemire uses three short stories and two flash fiction stories to tell the lives of everyday characters living outside of Ontario, Canada. There is nothing easy about their lives but they bear it with solemn dignity. Lester is living with Uncle Ken after his mother passes away but Uncle Ken doesn’t know what to do with a kid and doesn’t understand Lester’s love of superhero’s or comics; Vincent and Lou played hockey together, then a betrayal kept the brothers apart until tragedy brought them back to the family farm together; and Mrs. Quenneville who visits her husband every week in the cemtry, a son living with her who wants nothing to do with her, and she is the country nurse who visits elderly farmers, the nursing home, the forgotten, with little appreciation. These may be three separate stories but Lemire has weaved and looped their lives into tangles and each character makes an appearance in each other’s stories. Because like any other small farming community, their lives are connected.
The two flash fiction pieces show a little earlier Essex County history. The boxing club was started by two best friends and meant as a simple pastime for the community and would remain a pastime no matter what; and Eddy Elephant Ears who spent the last 10 years in a coma after a violent car crash that killed his family, but it’s okay because he doesn’t remember them. Even Mrs. Quenneville makes an appearance in Eddy’s story.
Essex County is a portrayal of the heartbreaking and the heartbroken; through the ups and downs, each character has persevered until their end. There is a strong family connection as well. Uncle Ken might not know how to raise a child but he’s going to try his damnest because he promised his sister he would. Jimmy might have messed up his chance of being a better father but he gives up his box of memories because the boys “still got a right to know who he is.” Mrs. Quenneville has made her patients her family whether they asked for it or not because her “patients are all I have these days. They’re like my family now, I guess.”
Lemire’s art is both loose and detailed. “Tales From The Farm” has an almost sketched quality while “Ghost Stories” seamlessly moves from present to past to present. Some panels are overlapped in the past and present simultaneously and some panels float away like the memories they are. “The Country Nurse’s” artwork is a little tighter from the first two stories. One artist element Lemire has mastered are the character’s eyes. I’ve never seen such emotion in beady little eyes. Lemire also uses numerous panels to evoke emotion like isolation and loneliness. Essex County is a quiet representation of everyday life and what they do to survive it.
By Emily Coleman
(This review has been previously published and has been moved to this platform for your convenience.)