In What is a Glacier? Sophie Yanow masterfully weaves together a trip to Iceland, a bad breakup, immigration woes, climate change, and anxiety about death into a 32 page meditation. “How do I get better at endings,” she asks herself midway through the book, and it’s this question more than glaciers that ties each thread together, a story that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s also a frank look at anxiety, and how it can eat its way into even the best of circumstances. How do I get better at endings, but also, how do I learn to cope with their inevitability.
The first half of the What is a Glacier illustrates a trip to Iceland with a friend, her first adult vacation and one very constrained by budget. She frets over the slow melting of glaciers, whether or not this may be her last chance ever to see them, and thoughts of her last relationship, which ended a year ago. Added to the mix are her parents eventual, inevitable deaths, David Bowie’s passing, and the melting of the last glacier on earth – and more personally, her anxiety.
The second half of the book is where the disparate plots start to gel into an incredibly satisfying theme. We start with a flashback to Yanow’s aforementioned relationship, the crushing anxiety she dealt with regarding her living situation in Canada, and her ex-girlfriend’s obsession with the upcoming apocalypse. Slowly, it all starts to merge — the glaciers, the inevitable devastation of climate change, a childhood of earthquakes, why she couldn’t make a clean break. She brings up the concept of “climate grief,” weaving in research from climate scientists and Buddhist philosophy on loss. Yanow observes each of these things with a gentle momentum — while she acknowledges that people often travel in an attempt to force revelations, there’s nothing forced about What is a Glacier? She takes her time even within the few pages to really dig into the meat of all these swirling thoughts and feelings that have trailed her for years.
Yanow’s art is deceptively simple – she’s a few loops of hair, big glasses, an oversized sweater – but it manages to help weave together each disparate point until you reach the end, where she is a meditating triangle of limbs and text, floating untethered. The landscapes of Iceland are weird and enticing, and her handwritten lettering makes the whole book feel like an intimate journal, albeit one with a clear thesis. There’s a real sense of spaces in her panels, sketchy linework creating places that feel very real — a kitchen, a club, a hot summer. Yanow sticks to six panels a page, but breaks up the layouts cleverly by inserting a few with black backgrounds and white text, giving the eye some respite and the page some pop.
Retrofit, as usual, has created a printed book that feels good in your hands and is a pleasure to read. Slightly oversized than most books this length (6.5 x 10.5 inches (165 x 267 mm)), What is a Glacier? is a short but immensely deep read, and a perfect addition to a bookshelf if you’re still into that.