Ce que je sais de ma maman
Ce que je sais de ma maman is a simple and brilliant children’s book, at least, in appearance. The pages are laid out in a recognizable fashion, invariably repeating the same rhythm and construction : on one side, a young girl tells us about her wonderful mother, on the other, a corresponding image that illustrates her words. The story progresses in this fashion, “my mother is like this, my mother is like that,” tracing the tender portrait of a young girls filial love for her mother through quiet and intimate stories. For young readers, the declaration of simple praise is probably all they will notice. But for those who pay close attention to Pauline Martin’s work, a vague premonition hovers over the surface of the story.
For this reader, the explicit stylistic reference to Edward Gorey did not go unnoticed. The decision to use a drawing style that so powerfully recalls themes of death and all things morose is sure to reframe the context of the young girl’s love for her mother. The singular melancholy of Gorey’s illustrated stories has been a limitless source for a number of artists (Tim Burton, for example), and if by softening the style or color schemes, Martin has brightened the tone to keep it from becoming total Macabre, it still isn’t enough to dissipate the grievous undertones.
As the story unfolds, a key detail helps to establish the somber presence of the underlying theme. Upon closer inspection, the cheery atmosphere of the story yields some disturbances. Something is amiss. The mother’s presence is always established but with a complete absence of the maternal gaze. At every page, the mother is represented by a figure’s back, a face hidden by a long crop of hair, and perhaps most alarmingly, when a household object just so happens to be placed in a manner that blocks our point of view of her.
At first, we resist the idea that the cartoonist has done anything more than create a simple and sweet children’s book, where children would want to vicariously think of their own mothers. This argument could effectively justify the usage of such strange compositions to a certain degree. However, the mother’s svelte figure, cascading red hair, and dramatic poses suggest an enamored representation, as much symbolic as it is concrete.
Themes from Pauline Martin’s first book, La Boite, about the suicide of her lover resurface here, and with them, a delicate sense of grief. The indications are clear. Set in the past, the melancholy tone and the author’s insistence that the child cannot draw her mother’s attention leave little to no room for any sense of hope in the story.
Upon rereading, the last pages leave little doubt. The mother gradually disappears from the images, the last image showing her back in the reflection of a mirror while her daughter steps into her high heels. She reappears on the next page, but it is impossible to consider her as anything but some sort of disembodied apparition. “What I know about my mother” confesses a different statement : “What I don’t know about my mother.”
Martin’s work establishes a new way to explore the emotions of mourning in the realm of autobiographical comics. And, once shaken by the initial surprise of the unexpectedly somber turn in the story, a reader will never be able to ignore this mourning, as they earnestly await her forthcoming works.