September 2021
Barbara Yelin and Thomas von Steinaecker: The Summer of her Life

Bucheinband: The Summer of Her Life
© SelfMadeHero

If you enjoyed Mary and Bryan Talbots’ Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, we recommend Barbara Yelin and Thomas von Steinaecker’s graphic novel The Summer of her Life.

One of the first graphic memoirs I ever read was Mary Talbot’s lovely memoir-cum-biography, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, illustrated by Bryan Talbot (who I am reliably informed is A Big Deal when it comes to comics). Interweaving Mary Talbot’s coming-of-age and her relationship with her father – an eminent Joyce scholar with an explosive temper – with the thwarted life of Lucia Joyce (the daughter of the modernist author), it’s an exquisite read, imbued with both sadness and hope. Mary’s eye for detail and Bryan’s poignant use of colour bagged them the Costa Prize for Biography when the book came out – an extremely rare case of such a prestigious literary award going to a comic.

It’s hard to pin down exactly why artist Barbara Yelin and novelist Thomas von Steinaecker’s The Summer of her Life (translated by John Reddick) put me in mind of The Dotter of her Father’s Eyes – it’s fiction rather than memoir, with no stormy father/daughter relationships and no parallels between different lives. The atmosphere it evokes though is the same – a sadness mixed with hope, which is never in danger of straying into nostalgia or self-pity.

Living out her days in a care home, Gerda Wendt thinks back on her life, and her reflections and memories are filtered through a fascination with (and former research focus on) physics. Numbers and stars are the two things which are always there, Gerda thinks, even when you aren’t looking.

The transitions between memories and the present day are elegantly done; in one particularly skilful example, a young Gerda runs along a cosy hallway which gradually morphs into a care home corridor, where the elderly Frau Wendt is met by a nurse. Yelin and Steinaecker really take advantage of the opportunities which the combination of text and image allows, recognising the messiness of chronology and memory. This too plays into Gerda’s reflections on physics and the possibility of alternative realities, without ever seeming contrived or theoretical.

As in The Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, Yelin’s use of colours – with a particular reliance on yellows and blues – is exquisite, capturing and evoking different moods and times. The book is made up fairly short chapters (4 – 6 pages long), and the pages between chapters – with their variations on a deep blue wash – encourage the reader to slow down, while also tying in with the recurring image of the night sky.

The stories which surround us – be they books, films or Netflix series – have a propensity to focus on the young, and often don’t do justice to people of Gerda Wendt’s age. The Summer of her Life helps to redress that balance, a gentle reminder never to underestimate the richness or emotions of anybody’s inner life.


About the author

Annie Rutherford is an incorrigible bookworm and Jill of all (word-based) trades. She is the Assistant Festival Director at StAnza (Scotland’s international poetry festival), a German-English literary translator, and runs Lighthouse Bookshop’s Women in Translation book group, among other things. She has been known to read while cycling (she does not recommend it), and can spot a misplaced apostrophe at a distance of fifty yards.

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