Jerzy Szyłak (Writer), Joanna Karpowicz (Artist and Colours), Paweł Timofiejuk (Letters)
18 April, 2018
Content Warning: Domestic violence and abuse.
Sour Apple is the story of a woman. We never learn her name, but that is because we do not need to. She is every woman.
This woman tells us, the reader—the voyeur—how caring her husband is. He “takes care of” her, looks after the house, and buys her things. According to the protagonist, her husband could have had anyone but he chose her. She is grateful.
On no particular day at all, he comes home late, drunk and angry. She questions him. He doesn’t take it well. She is left bloody on the floor. The next day, he brings her flowers and apologises. But very little is needed to set her husband off. The protagonist assures us that there are more good days than bad, but the cycle of violence is unending. She lives in anticipation of things going bad, which colours even the bests moments between them. Each time, she forgives him and life continues. Until the next time, and the next, and the next because behind closed doors, anything can happen.
This is not an easy story to read, even if we have encountered it a thousand times before in newspapers, books, comics, poems, films, or television shows. Sour Apple is a gut-wrenching tale of domestic abuse that sadly, continues to be painfully relevant. It is a necessary story, but not one that is particularly ground-breaking.
Text is used sparingly in this graphic novel, and almost all of it is an internal dialogue that the protagonist has with god or the reader. She outlines in excruciating detail what happens to her when her husband gets angry. Writer Jerzy Szyłak, a film critic and pop culture researcher, brings his analytical point of view to the depiction of domestic violence. He incorporates some of the many known consequences faced by victims of abuse: the dark glasses, the concealer, the excuses to doctors, cutting off contact with family and friends, and the fear of making even the tiniest of errors. The book succinctly includes all these harrowing details into the life of one protagonist.
There is one section that is particularly poignant when the protagonist imagines a life free of abuse. In this book, she does not merely imagine being free of her husband but of helping others escape the same hell she is living in. It is a fascinating few pages that depicts female solidarity, an aspect of women’s relationships that is often overlooked in popular media. Far too often in popular fiction, female victims of domestic violence are portrayed as indifferent to the suffering of fellow victims. It is good to see a more normal depiction instead, especially in a book that was written by a man.
Szyłak’s story is brought to life by artist Joanna Karpowicz. A “painter who makes comic books,” Karpowicz’s distinctive life painting style gives the story a humanity that may have been lost in the hands of a less subtle artist. Her use of colour, light, and shade are evocative and jarring, but it is how she places the reader in the context of the story that really brings the subject matter home.
I mentioned before that the reader is like a voyeur in this story. The way Karpowicz draws the panels and places the characters within them, often in close-up, makes the reader feel as though they are within the frame, right beside the character. One is not just on the outside looking in: you are in the room with her. Interestingly, Karpowicz’s art never puts the reader in the place of the protagonist, always beside her. Whether she means for readers to feel complicit in the actions taking place on the page is up for debate, but one is certainly placed close enough to the events to recoil in disgust and fear.
The main negative for me is the ending. It is neither a happy, nor a sad ending, and that is probably why I am not pleased with it. A story as unflinchingly depressing as this needed a solid conclusion. There are far too many stories out there of abuse against women that end with no repercussions for the perpetrators of such violence and one gets tired of it. The story comes dangerously close to “torture porn” territory by simply depicting domestic violence and its day-to-day consequences, its female protagonist never getting the agency she deserves. A subversion of this story trope would have done Sour Apple a great deal of good. There isn’t enough justice for female victims in the world, surely at least fiction could cut them some slack?
Having said that, the ending is a realistic portrayal of such abusive relationships, which is an unfortunate commentary in itself. But, it is important for media to move away from the glorified victim narrative. It is too easy to just show women suffering and coping; what we need, especially in light of #MeToo and the #TimesUp campaigns, is a depiction of women reclaiming power and ownership of their bodies and lives.
Stories like Sour Apple need to be a social commentary. Simply stating that this kind of abuse takes place is not enough, especially for female readers, who are likely the target audience for this kind of story. Awareness only takes us so far. After that, there is a need for action, no matter how fictional the setting.
Sour Apple is a beautifully told story that does not shy away from the unpleasantness of its subject matter. A combination of excellent art and strong writing make it a tale that will live on in readers’ minds long after the final page has been turned. It is a book that one would recommend because of its extensive detailing of a life of abuse. But, best be prepared for a sleepless night after.