Alison Bechdel had a lot of things to come to terms with as she was growing up. The veneer finish of her family life hid cracks that ran deep through its very foundation; her relationship with her father proved disappointing to her; his apparent suicide left her confused about her feelings for him; and she had to blaze her own trail to her homosexuality, despite the fact that her father left many clues that he indulged in some extra-marital gay sex himself.
Fun Home is Bechdel working through these problems. That she does it through the medium of literature is no great surprise: her family was deeply literary, with her mother spending much time working on literary post-graduate studies; and her father alternating his work between teaching literature at the local high school and running the family funeral home. Bechdel and her parents constantly have their noses in books and their relationships are defined by them. In fact, they communicate better when Alison has left home and they can write to one another instead of conversing face to face. There are references to classic literature throughout, though you’re not going to miss out on anything if you’re not familiar with it all.
Bechdel trawls through her family memories by theme, rather than opening up to the reader chronologically. Its thoughtful and crafted, going over the same ground from different angles and perspectives, as she builds up her convincing case that her family life was conflicted and confusing.
Unlike the memoires of the rich and famous that litter bookshops at the moment, this isn’t a racy expose and not a lot happens in the traditional sense. It’s more like a moving portrait of a family, a documentary if you will, with Bechdel peeling back the layers for us to see inside her life without applying very much judgement. It’s a strange mix, for someone who comes across as detached and disappointed by her family, to devote such time, effort and huge artistic skill to telling us about it, but it works beautifully.
What we’re left with is a memoire of an interesting family life. There’s love and hate, confusion and caring, resentment, sadness and happiness. Just as you get in most families. Bechdel’s thoughtful conviction and superior ability to weave a deeply compelling story make it a far easier read than it perhaps has any right to be, and it comes strongly recommended from this reviewer.