In her acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home, now a Tony Award-winning play, Alison Bechdel shows how she discovered and came to terms with her sexuality while her father kept his own a secret until his death by suicide soon after she came out in college. She asks readers to think about who we are if everything we had taken for granted about our parents turned out to be wrong.
Bechdel long suspected her father was gay—and the former student and family friend who babysat her and her younger brothers was, in fact, his lover—but Mira in Cordelia Jensen’s eloquent and heartbreaking novel in verse, Skyscraping, discovers her father in bed with ex-student and lover James. She then discovers that her mother knew all along—that her parents had an open marriage. And in this novel that takes place in 1993-94—during the plague years—both her father and James are HIV-positive.
Mira is a student leader, a peer mentor and the editor of the school yearbook. After discovering her father’s affair at the beginning of the fall semester, she changes the yearbook theme from New York City to space. Now, she wants to get as far away as possible from her childhood home, to a place where she can see the stars and not see the family whose deception has upended her life. As she uncovers more secrets, her actions turn destructive as she betrays friends and destroys the best work of the yearbook staff.
Mira is a lonely star, difficult to reach or understand. At times Jensen compares her to an exoplanet, hovering on the outside, trying to force her way into a solar system but doing it all wrong. Once described as someone who innately knew how to join social groups, she loses herself in her family’s crisis and grief. How she finds her way back to herself, to thoses around her, and to the wider world lies at the heart of the story. The ending is no secret, but Mira’s journey grabs readers and challenges them to consider how they would respond in a similar situation. Celestial imagery serves as the central metaphor throughout the novel, helping to understand Mira’s emotional state, how she sees her world and the people within it, and how she changes.
Using a different approach from Bechdel—that of fiction and poetry—Jensen has turned a personal experience into a story that will lead others to think about the secrets kept from children and what happens when we discover the truth. This is a book filled with heart, beauty, and insight.
On Thursday, J.L. Powers will feature an interview with Cordelia Jensen.