Polar Vortex by Denise Dorrance review – hazards of a homecoming

<span>‘Creative in so many ways’: Polar Vortex by Denise Dorrance.</span><span>Illustration: Denise Dorrance</span>
‘Creative in so many ways’: Polar Vortex by Denise Dorrance.Illustration: Denise Dorrance

Denise Dorrance’s graphic memoir, Polar Vortex, is enchanting, every page lovely to look at, so funny and plangent and full of sly wisdom. But it’s also (dread word) strikingly relevant. Its principal subject being old age, by rights it should bring vast crowds of new readers to comics. There can, after all, be few people now who haven’t at least some experience of caring for – or just worrying about – an older relative, as the author does in her book; even those who aren’t yet there know full well what lies ahead: the care bills that will have to be paid, the attics that must be cleared out. After I finished reading it, I thought of my own boxes of photographs, my heaving bookshelves. To whom am I leaving the burden of sorting them out? I pushed the thought away, but it cannot be avoided for ever.

Dorrance has lived in London since 1995, but she was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and in Polar Vortex, her first full-length graphic book, she returns to it, somewhat reluctantly. Her elderly, widowed mother is in hospital after a fall; decisions need to be made. On paper, this sounds a bit grinding. Please, no commodes! But Dorrance has a delicate touch, and a feeling for the rich territory on which she finds herself.

There is a lot going on, and not all of it has to do with her mother’s dementia. When we go home, we become children again – even, sometimes, at the moments when we most need to be adult – and she’s amusing about this. Then again, what constitutes home, when you’ve been away for so long? She gives us lots of fish-out-of-water jokes: culture clashes born not only of her metropolitan sophistication, but of what the locals regard as her Englishness (they can’t get enough of her accent, which to their ears makes her sound like the queen).

The weather is bad – the book’s title refers not only to hard emotional terrain, but to an incoming storm that will deposit many feet of snow – and this gives her pages a kind of reverse-fairytale feel. The whiteness casts a spell; introversion is impossible when distractions cannot easily be trekked to (especially if you’re wearing, not layers of nylon padding, but a woollen London coat). In her drawings, as expressive and as deft as those of Alison Bechdel or even Posy Simmonds, Dorrance plays up to this. Death appears, like a pantomime villain; the Cedar Rapids hospital, red-brick and Victorian-looking, rises in the blizzard like some impenetrable castle.

But she’s creative in so many other ways, too, deploying old photographs, postcards and letters – and even, at one point, a wagon train – as a means of pacing the narrative. When it comes to her mother’s (limited) options post-hospital, the ghost of the cheesy TV host Monty Hall appears to turn the whole thing into a primetime quizshow (“Number two! Become a resident at Living Care!”). It is all, in short, magical: a triumph of art and feeling. I loved it. I can’t say enough good things about it. Buy it for everyone you know.

  • Polar Vortex by Denise Dorrance is published by New River (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply