The Saddest Children’s Book in the World


Arts & Culture


What could be simpler than a bubble, a thin little floating membrane, the symbol of an innocent, trouble-free childhood? But it is said that one cannot live in a bubble—it’s right there in the definition: “a good or fortunate situation that is isolated from reality or unlikely to last.” In this jagged world, bubbles burst.

A Bubble, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée’s posthumously published last work, is, in essence, a children’s board book. It begins with the caption “Maman lives in a bubble,” above a drawing of a little blond child in cat-face knee socks gazing at her mother, who floats in the titular sphere. “I love you very much,” the mother says, her freckled face anxious, her choppy hair concealed under a beanie hat. She may be unwell, sick. Indeed, the next page confirms it, the mother has been ill for some time: “It has been a while now. I no longer remember the time when she didn’t live in the bubble, I was too little.” The mother works on projects in her bubble: embroidery, reading, crafting, drawing. She gets sicker and sicker, her illness progresses, her hair thins, she starts wearing a cannula, she is connected to a tank. She cannot leave her bubble, but sometimes the little girl joins her in it. They eat breakfast together (“She doesn’t mind if I make crumbs with my toast”), nap (“a special time for Maman and me”), make art (“I draw with her, it brings her great joy”). When she goes on excursions with Papa, the little girl makes sure to tell Maman about her adventures. The bubble separates them but cannot keep them apart. One day, the bubble ruptures, Maman washes out, disoriented at first, but overwhelmingly happy, and she kisses her little girl a thousand times, invites her for an ice cream cone. “I say yes!” the child reports contentedly, and the two walk off together, holding hands, free of the bubble at last, absorbed in each other. 


From A Bubble by Geneviève Castrée (Courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly)


But they didn’t live happily ever after. The final note by Castrée’s husband, the musician Phil Elverum, informs us: “In her final weeks alive, Geneviève clung to finishing this book for our daughter with intense focus and devotion. I think she was trying to cast a spell, to draw herself into survival. She didn’t get to finish it.” (The cartoonist Anders Nilsen, a friend, completed some of the illustrations, based on Castrée’s instructions, as well as some of the lettering.) Castrée died in July 2016. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the previous year, four months after she gave birth to her daughter. This knowledge lends A Bubble the quality of a saint’s relic and makes it nearly unbearable to read. It is a tiny work, less than twenty small pages, and more would seem impossible to handle. The first few times I looked through it, I held my breath, for it is in essence a horror story. I kept thinking of that old urban legend/possible Hemingway apocrypha that the saddest story ever told took only six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” And here is this, a book sized for a toddler’s hands, with its simple colors, its direct language, its bright hope. Baby book, begun in love, never finished.

A Bubble is devastation distilled. What else can be said about a book made by a young, dying mother? On A Crow Looked at Me, the album he wrote about his wife’s death, Phil Elverum sings,

Death is real
Someone’s there and then they’re not
And it’s not for singing about
It’s not for making into art
When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb
When I walk into the room where you were
And look into the emptiness instead
All fails.

A Bubble exists in the bubble of the tragic circumstances of its making.

But it also exists on the larger continuum of the art Castrée made: in her graphic novel Susceptible and in the albums she recorded, first as Woelv, then as Ô Paon. Writing about Fleuve, Ô Paon’s 2015 album, Lars Gotrich describes it as “tragic and triumphant.” And it’s true: sorrow and elation coexist in surprising, contrary harmony in Castrée’s work, its evocative lines, its meditative harmonies. Susceptible, published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2012, episodically lays out the trials of Goglu, who resembles, with her frank, freckled face, a younger Maman.  Growing up in Quebec, she is largely neglected by her mother, Amère, and stepfather, Amer. Her father lives some five thousand miles away in British Columbia (“As I get older, I meet other children who have a missing father who lives in British Columbia. It’s like a mythical kingdom where dads go to disappear”), and the circumstance of physical distance is compounded by the fact that Goglu’s English is limited and her father’s French is absurd. (Goglu calls him Tête d’Oeuf, a nickname derived from the time her uncles made her father repeat nonsense like “je suis une tête d’oeuf,” or “I am an egg head.”) Subject to the vagaries of her mother’s drinking, feeling unwanted—she overhears Amère confess she wishes she’d gotten an abortion—and friendless, Goglu takes refuge in punk music and art. Ultimately, she learns, as she must, to forge her own way. At book’s end, she realizes, “I’m eighteen. I have all my teeth. I can do whatever I want.” It’s as hopeful an ending as one might hope for.


From Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée (courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly)


Susceptible was presented as Castrée’s first book, but she had, at the time of its publication, been long involved in making comics and zines, and so the graphic novel is marked by a maturity of style, a quiet, unshowy confidence. Castrée often foregoes typical comics paneling, allowing moments and memories to spill out directly on the page. She uses a looping cursive hand, small and neat, which sometimes has the feel of a lovingly scrawled caption in a family photo album and always suggests a confidential whisper, a secret you have to lean in to hear, one well worth the effort. The effect is unforced intimacy.

The title speaks to young Goglu’s vulnerability to the chaos around her. But the book itself also handily demonstrates all the traps that Castrée was not susceptible to: sentimentality, melodrama, self-pity. In this autobiographical work—“Goglu” was a childhood nickname—she foregrounds painful memories but also insists that the pain can be transformed into something beyond them. Susceptible offers a series of evocative vignettes (with titles like “goodbye” and “house fire I” and “my room”), building to a liberating coda. Revisiting it hurts after looking at A Bubble.

As I struggle to write this, I am listening to Ô Paon, and I am thinking about Castrée’s insistence on finishing A Bubble in her last days, her attempt to make something lasting and something pure for the daughter she knew she was leaving behind. Susceptible begins with Goglu speculating “about what is innate and what is acquired.” She wonders “if it is possible for a sadness to be passed from one generation to the other.” The book explores Goglu’s depressions but also works to transcend them. It does. It does because Goglu—or rather the woman she became—is clearly talented, unafraid, determined, committed to making something. Castrée was self-taught, but that only comes through in the way she seems so at ease neglecting the conventions of genre. And it is tempting to call A Bubble brave, because it is. It is tempting to call it beautiful. It is beautiful. But I wish it didn’t exist. I wish there were no need for it to have been made.

In Bubbles, his massive exploration of the “archeology of the intimate,” the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk describes the uterus as a “bubble” that cradles the fetus before it makes its way out into the world, before it assumes the task of individuating, separating from the mother, becoming a person. Becoming a person, your own person, is powerful and freeing; this is what Susceptible is about. But one remains haunted by the past. Sometimes it seems that Castrée’s music, sung in the French that remained her instinctive language, suggests as much. The art Castrée made is testimony: to the joys of growing older, and to the price. And I am reminded that “bubble” can refer to “speech bubble,” can mark the imperative to experience and to speak. When that bubble bursts, all that is left is silence.


Yevgeniya Traps lives in Brooklyn. She works at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU.