This graphic novel is an attempt for author Birgit Weyhe to find who her grandparents were, from tidbits of information (letters, photos and conversations) she collected after their and her own father’s death.
As Weyhe’s teenage daughters have to complete a family tree for a school report, this German graphic artist (born in 1969) discovers she knows very little indeed and starts her own research. The result is this huge black-and-white book on some dark family secrets and how her grandparents, born between 1894 and 1913, went through the tragic German history of the 20th century. In her introduction she candidly confesses that whatever she could not prove, especially people’s thoughts, she imagined in order to fill the blanks of the canvas, as shown in the French cover art.
The strength of this book lies in part in her characters. Weyhe doesn’t try to make her grandparents nice, likeable, or even consistent. There are full of yearnings, shame, secrets, compromises, successes and failures. They grew up during a deeply conservative and repressed era (think Freudian psychosis) that have shaped them all and they have all survived wars and traumatic events. Weyhe as a child took them for granted and didn’t understand or even question why they acted like they did, and she as an adult has this chance to shine a different light on their lives and choices.
There’s Grandma Marianne, who is a strong woman in her own mind: she rebels against the school’s Catholic nuns, decides at a young age to become a milliner and convinces her conservative parents to let her have her own career (no small feast!), but who until the very last days of her life will hide her private wounds of an abortion that has doomed her to hell. There’s Marianne’s sister Lea, who never rebelled but stayed at home, took care of Lea’s children for her but sometimes has flashed of hatred and resentment. There’s Grandma Herta, another strong woman, born in a wealthy family, who married as her father wished, but later fell in love with and married a man who cheated on her shamelessly. There’s Herta’s husband and his brother Carl Friedrich, who received a very strict education and still bore the scars into adulthood.
The strength of the characters’ stories is emphasized by Weyhe’s design. Using ink and brush, her art is a stark black and white, its hand child-like on purpose and she often takes her inspiration in historical pictures, photos or objects. Violent feelings or traumatic events are often presented with symbols rather than realistically, but nonetheless this is no comic book to leave around small kids in my opinion.
Despite having Paradise in its French title and Heaven in its German title, this graphic novel is rather a study in the best and worst of humanity and life during the 20th century. The result is quite memorable, if slightly depressing.