Written and drawn by Nate Powell
Publisher: Top Shelf
What's it about?
Teenagers Ruth and Perry are siblings with mental health problems. Perry has a little wizard only he can see, who forces him to draw. Ruth suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which takes the form of shelf ordering and collecting preserved insects. They live in a very strong bible area, so strong that their science teacher cannot teach science that has been proven. A lesson on asexual reproduction starts with a chapter of Luke, within the bible. Ruth and Perry live with their parents and their elderly grandmother, who is very ill and lives on the sofa. It's about familes, and relationships, and mental health.
The book shows us year or so of Ruth and Perry's lives. It drops you in, rushes you along and whisks you away, in what feels like minutes. The reader is left floundering, gasping for air and a feeling of steadyness.
I have grouped these two sections together because of the effect this book had on me. I found the story very effective, very affecting, very emotional, stark and sometimes downright hostile. It left me shaky and upset. To have produced such a visceral reaction it must be good, right? Well yes, it is. But it also meant it was a very difficult read. For me it brought out memories of being a teenager with mental health problems. The insight into Ruth's world, her OCD, her dissociation, her relationship with her insects and her brother's relationship with his wizard, and all the pressure that these things entail, are brought to life on the page.
Throughout Ruth and Perry's difficulties, this book shows that they are normal people. They have rational conversations. They go to school. They do homework. They have friends, lovers, relationships. They are all this and they also have some mental health problems. Not many books shows this side of things. Swallow Me Whole doesn't glamorise their illness but neither does it hide it. It simply tells their story. I suspect that this is why I found it such a painful read. It is very real, even when it's dealing with unreal things.
What's the art like?
They art is key to understanding this book. It's oppressive. Sometimes chaotic. It feels like a black cloud looming out of the page, bearing down on your mind. It veers between feeling threatening and uneasy, neither of which are comfortable sensations.
This feeling is achieved through the black line art. Panels and pages are constructed to zoom in on minor parts of a room. Faces are drawn static and lost. It's the closest thing I've seen to reflecting what mental ill health feels like.
This is available from Top Shelf in print and digital format. The print hardback is beautiful, it comes in a lovely woven cotton-like cover, encouraging you to treat it as a special gift. It would make a beautiful gift, just don't give it to someone likely to be triggered by it!
Amazon has a 'look inside' feature for this book.