Lost at Sea (2003)

I bought this graphic novel solely on the strength of the creator’s name (well, that, and I needed a book to get over the free-shipping threshold, I think). I haven’t actually read any of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s other works, nor have I watched the Scott Pilgrim movie adaptation (2010). But I’ve been interested in both for a while, so I figured I’d dip my toe into O’Malley’s oeuvre with his cheapest available book first before blind-buying the 50$ Pilgrim box.

Lost at Sea tells a modest story befitting its slim size (about 150 pages). Set over a period of a couple of days and nights, it revolves around Raleigh, a teenager on her way back from a trip to California to her first year of college in Canada. She shares a car with three mostly-strangers, acquaintances from her high school who had also spent the holidays in America and more or less accidentally offered her a ride home.

—A cat stole some spoilers and hid them below—

The road trip isn’t particularly eventful, consisting mainly of conversation and the avoidance of conversation. This is intercut with flashbacks going all the way back to Raleigh’s childhood, narrated by her. They’re not in chronological order, so it takes a while for the reader to find out exactly what the deal is with the protagonist. This gentle disorientation matches Raleigh’s feelings. At 18, she’s still uncertain about her role in the world, and she’s not confident in own skin. She knows her companions from school, but not really well, and it’s a coincidence that she runs into them in California at all. In her mind, they are so much cooler than her. There’s a lovely moment showcasing her insecurity when she pretends to have fallen asleep so she can her what the others are saying about her behind her back. Over the course of the trip, Raleigh learns some important lessons about the divergence of self-image and the impression others have of you; trivial realisations re: the grass always being greener on the other side permeate the book. There’s nothing earth-shatteringly new here, but the message fits the main character and her age.

In addition to normal teenage hang-ups about confidence, Raleigh has unsettled issues about her parents’ divorce four years earlier, which coincided with her best friend moving away. She blames her mother for her own seeming inability to form relationships and, in a way, for having thrived since the divorce. Raleigh keeps using the metaphor (though it’s not clear whether she doesn’t believe it to be the truth after all) that her soul was sold to the devil in exchange for her mother’s financial success. But it’s a metaphor that doesn’t stretch very far despite having been obsessed over for years, as Raleigh herself realises in the end when she explains to one of her companions that she did briefly feel complete, back in California, with her secret boyfriend. If her “soul” is a social sense of belonging and integration, she gets it by opening up to people instead of shutting them out. Her broken home has nothing directly to do with that. And that’s another important lesson for a pensive teenager on the cusp of adulthood.

None of the above paragraph is stated explicitly in the comic. It’s an interpretation based on the subtext. That’s a testament to the strong character work O’Malley does with his heroine. I’m writing this review about a month after reading the book, working from a few notes, and I still have a very good sense of Raleigh and her troubles. I don’t know whether she is autobiographical on the part of the author or based on observation, but it certainly rings true. As a child of divorce myself, I can definitely relate to making up colourful, even fantastical stories that explain your parents’ behaviour while still egocentrically revolving around you, and even starting to believe in these stories a little bit. Raleigh hits close to home. While I imagine that Lost at Sea would be particularly appealing to teenagers given its themes, the protagonist makes it worth a look for older audiences, as well, and not just for nostalgic flashbacks to one’s own youth.

O’Malley’s style is a bit cartoony and seemingly simple, but very expressive and works perfectly to set the mood for the kind of introspective story this is. A new anniversary edition apparently has colour shading, but I read the original and there’s nothing wrong with the black and white art.


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