Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Unterzakhn, by Leela Corman

Esther and Fanya are twin sisters and first-generation Jewish Americans growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City in the early 20th Century in Leela Corman's graphic novel Unterzakhn ("underthings"). We follow the girls from around age six well into adulthood, tracing their very different but intertwined life paths: Fanya takes a job with a female doctor who specializes in women's health, while Esther works in a burlesque house / bordello before establishing herself in New York's arts scene. With set-ups like that, you might guess that events take dark, adult turns, and you wouldn't be wrong. Some of the story points teeter towards the melodramatic, but they're nevertheless convincing and compelling. Flashbacks to the twins' father's youth in Europe show a different sort of grasping at life's opportunities and viscitudes -- rural, not urban like the girls' -- but together these life portraits bring the past, a specific past, to life.

Corman's art, always accomplished, here takes on an almost velvety texture. The drawing on the first twenty five or so pages is tighter, more delicate and controlled than the rest of the book; but after that things tend to get looser, with ink lines growing bolder, more gestural, lusher. (Hair in particular becomes an occasion for artistic abandon.) The settings are richly defined -- Corman's research doesn't hit you over the head, but it informs every page, every panel. These are lived-in environments, detailed and believable.

Unterzakhn is a book about choices and circumstance, adversity and love. It's not always an easy read, but it's a valuable one. 

Unterzakhn
by Leela Corman
Schocken Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 0805242597
ISBN-13: 978-0805242591

208 pages, $24.95