Virginia Wolf – book review

Written by Kyo Maclear Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Published by Book Island ISBN: 978-1-911496-038

Review by Rachel Morris

virginia_cover_final_550The roots of this story sit loosely in the relationship between Virginia Woolf, 20th century Author and central figure in the Bloomsbury group, and her sister, the Artist Vanessa Bell.

Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault delve back into an imagined childhood as Vanessa struggles with her sister’s “Wolfish mood” – a reference to the real Virginia Woolf’s life long battle with depression. It’s a beautifully illustrated and sensitive, dreamlike story about what it could be like for a child to see a loved one suffering. While it doesn’t go deeply into the complexities and tragedy associated with mental illness, what it does do is lend a light touch and fairytale quality to those themes. For older readers, it opens up those ideas for deeper thought.

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Isabelle Arsenault’s muted colour palette takes us straight into the pervasively dark mood of Vanessa’s sister. Pencil marks are used to lay the drawing process bare, with the blemishes left by erased and re-drawn lines making up an important and beautiful part of the over all texture of the illustration.

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As the book progresses we see Vanessa’s glorious imagined world of “Bloomsberry” unfold. She literally and figuratively draws her sister out of her “wolfish mood” by drawing, painting and making a beautiful, imaginary place. The contrast between the grey and muted reality for the sisters and the colour bursting from their imagination heightens the difference as Virginia’s mood begins to change.

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The way in which Virginia is drawn also changes. She becomes more human, with the wolfish characteristics we’ve seen when she’s drawn in silhouette and shadow melting away. Those pointy ears are, in fact, the loops of a bow in her hair: Another lovely, visual tool to link the “wolfish” Virginia with the girl emerging from the “doldrums”.

In essence, this is a sensitive story about overcoming darkness with creativity, time, love and empathy.

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31st May 2017
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