In 2015, Quebec-born writer, comics artist and musician Geneviève Castrée went to see a doctor. It was thought to be a standard postpartum checkup, not long after she had given birth to her first child. Instead, Castrée got something completely unexpected: a diagnosis of fourth-stage inoperable pancreatic cancer.
She and husband Phil Elverum initiated crowdfunding to help with her care, but within a year the cancer claimed her. In the months leading up to her death, faced with enormous life upheaval and radiation treatments, Castrée nevertheless kept working, her main focus being a book for her year-and-a-half-old daughter. A Bubble (Drawn & Quarterly, 16 pages, $14.95) is the result of that labour of love.
It’s a small object, formatted in the style of books for very young children: square with rounded corners, its cardboard pages thick enough to withstand rough treatment and household mishap. A Bubble is also small if you go strictly by page and word count, but then, the power of art can’t be measured by the square millimetre. Told in a single image per page, with sparing use of text, it’s a masterfully understated evocation of filial love and impending loss, its title an uncannily apt dual metaphor for a family’s self-created safe space and a mother’s fragile condition.
You may fly through it on first reading, but you’re likely to find it’s a book to be revisited and lingered over. Details are few but telling: at one point the mother is suddenly seen to have an oxygen tube attached to her nose. Castrée manages to create a work of versatile utility: a personal gift that will have universal appeal to both adults and children, and provide a teachable opportunity for parents to introduce ideas of mortality.
A Bubble is as original and affecting a portrait of the mother-child bond as you’re ever likely to see. Factor in Elverum’s poignant afterword (“I think she was trying to cast a spell, to draw herself into survival”) and the emotional punch is powerful indeed.
Castrée was a comics enthusiast from the beginning, and even her earliest mini-comics, self-published in her teens, showed a fully formed sensibility in the process of expanding in multiple directions. Finding an early supporter in Montreal publisher Benoît Chaput’s L’oie de Cravan, she came to the attention of the world at large in 2013 with Susceptible (Drawn & Quarterly, 80 pages, $19.95). If I had to compile an all-time graphic novels top 10, Susceptible would be in it. An autobiographical memoir of growing up in Montreal and on the South Shore, with interludes in British Columbia (“a mythical Kingdom where dads go to disappear”) that give the feel of a national allegory, the book is a tribute to the resilience of kids even while sparing nothing of their vulnerability. Narrator Goglu’s volatile relationship with her single mother and (mostly) absent father, and her gropings toward an identity of her own, are rendered in intricate black-and-white images and deftly varied compositions where form and content are perfect mirrors of each other. Susceptible was effectively its own happy ending, a testament to the embattled child having grown up and found her voice and métier.
Music was essential to Castrée’s artistic identity. As Woelv and Ô PAON, she recorded a series of numinous albums described by Pitchfork as “cobwebbed drone folk.” It was while touring with the latter that she met the man who was to be her partner for the rest of her life. Elverum was one of American indie rock’s most universally respected figures before he met Castrée; the Microphones and Mount Eerie, his two main recording identities, have been delivery vehicles for an ongoing meditation on the artist’s place in the world. A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only, the two Mount Eerie albums Elverum has made since his wife’s passing, are remarkable for how they both internalize and express grief and loss: there’s no particular effort to make Elverum’s experience universal, but in the way these things sometimes work, their intensely personal nature is exactly what makes them so immediate and relatable.
It would be a shame if Castrée’s early death and Elverum’s brave artistic response were to dominate how they’re perceived in the public mind, because for years their story was a different one: they were a totem for integrity and mutual support, a model for how two independent artists can coexist and thrive under one roof. Settling in Elverum’s lifelong home town of Anacortes, Wash. — not too far from some of the places in British Columbia where Castrée, visiting her father, had found respite from her problematic Quebec upbringing — they took an active part in the cultural life of the town, drawing inspiration and sustenance from their natural surroundings in one of the few relatively unspoiled corners of the continent. A short, silent YouTube clip called Printing TAUS002, showing the two making the cover for a collaborative single in their home printing shed in 2011, is an unassuming and touching glimpse into their life together.
Loyalty being a theme that runs through Castrée’s life, it’s fitting that her final book of poetry, Maman Apprivoisée (L’oie de Cravan, 134 pages, $16.95), published under the name Geneviève Elverum, finds her back with an early supporter. Released in May, in a limited bilingual edition of 800, it makes an ideal companion piece to A Bubble. The poems show the author facing her life and condition head-on, as in Three Eyelashes: “On my right eye / I still have some eyelashes / but on my left eye / I can easily / count them / one two three.”
As with A Bubble, and indeed with all of Castrée’s work, the poems leave us with conflicting but equally deep impressions: sadness at the unfairness of an artist, mother and wife taken when she had so much left to give, and gratitude that she was able to do what she did in the time she had.