Review: Stone Fruit by Lee Lai

This graphic novel begins with three humanoid monsters running through a forest. They have pointy teeth, goat’s pupils, their hunched bodies led by elongated limbs. They push through the forest’s branches and muddy puddles, pursuing a silver dog. Then a phone rings and one of them, Ray, transforms back into a person as she answers. On the other end is Amanda, Ray’s sister and the mother of six-year-old Nessie, the child Ray and her girlfriend Bron are minding. She asks them to bring Nessie home early. “You don’t want to have Nessie getting corrupted by seeing nasty, freaky queer love?” Ray complains to her sister. Ray and Bron fight, which leads to their break up months later. While Ray grieves Bron moves back with her Christian family, attempting to reconcile with her sister, father and mother after leaving them to be with Ray four years earlier. They sent her to their local church psychologist to try to convince her that she wasn’t trans.

Stone Fruit casts a sympathetic gaze over this warts-and-all story of break-up and tentative reconciliation. The characters behave cruelly and desperately to each other in their attempts to care for each other and themselves. Bron leaves Ray almost callously, unable to communicate with her what is going on. In one scene Bron attempts to find out if her cold mother also suffers from mental illness like she does. “You’ve just been misguided,” her mother responds, rejecting vulnerability. I was particularly drawn to the prickly, controlling Amanda, whose reaction to Ray’s grief is mainly irritation at the loss of her babysitter. “What you’re asking for is to shirk your responsibility so you can fall apart,” she says pointedly. She resents the fairweather relationship Ray and Bron have with Nessie, worries that her own stress is affecting her daughter.

Nessie is portrayed as someone who might have the power to bring these people together. “You have to be down to really go there with her. And sometimes that’s somewhere sort of feral and screamy, and that’s great,” Ray tells Amanda, suggesting that the absence of this feralness and screaminess is what’s doing so much damage to the adults and their relationships.

The illustrations are gorgeous, their greyscale lines and shades belying the richness of their detail – interiors, streetscapes, expressions and gestures (I want Ray’s “All is whales” t-shirt!). The images sometimes dissolve or emerge across the panels, mirroring the logic of grief. This story may deal with heavy themes but there’s a lightness to its telling.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer characters, sex and themes.

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