An el­derly art dealer con­fronts dark thoughts and dan­ger in this som­bre Christ­mas Carol for our times

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Jus­tine Jor­dan

The clue is in the name: Posy Sim­monds’ first graphic novel in 11 years is a far darker af­fair than the ex­pat­bait­ing satire of Gemma Bovery , a mod­ern riff on Flaubert’s tale of adul­tery and dis­sat­is­fac­tion, or the lit­er­ary in-jokes of Ta­mara Drewe , which fol­lows Thomas Hardy’s sto­ry­line of a beau­ti­ful in­comer stir­ring up ru­ral emo­tions in Far from the Madding Crowd. Like Jane Austen, an­other so­cial co­me­dian, Sim­monds’ cosy rep­u­ta­tion be­lies her bit­ing wit; this is a Christ­mas book with lit­tle in­ter­est in mer­ri­ment.

This time her point of de­par­ture is the char­ac­ter of Scrooge in A Christ­mas Carol, for a story that piv­ots around two fes­tive sea­sons. Cas­san­dra Darke is an an­ti­heroine to rel­ish: a selfish, soli­tary art dealer liv­ing in a mul­ti­mil­lion pound Chelsea town­house, ded­i­cated only to her own com­forts, and en­tirely un­both­ered by other peo­ple’s opin­ions – even when her dodgy busi­ness prac­tices catch up with her, lead­ing to a scan­dalous trial (“My name was now of­fi­cially MUD and al­ways would be, and I didn’t much care”). Large and ad­vanced in age – or “old and fat”, as she bluntly puts it – she is usu­ally drawn in a puffer coat, scarf and trap­per’s hat, hard stare only slightly soft­ened by spec­ta­cles, giv­ing her a doughty pres­ence rem­i­nis­cent of the in­domitable Grandma in the Giles car­toons. Where Gemma and Ta­mara were young and un­cer­tain, try­ing out dif­fer­ent per­for­mances of fem­i­nin­ity, Cas­san­dra is res­o­lutely achieved, as both char­ac­ter by Posy Sim­monds, Cape, £16.99 and car­toon. In one panel we see her on the tube wom­anspread­ing into her fel­low pas­sen­gers’ el­bow space, obliv­i­ous to their side­long glares.

Like Scrooge, Cas­san­dra is con­temp­tu­ous of char­ity (“a frac­tion of the money raised goes to help poor who­ev­ers ... ”), and im­pa­tient with the young – here, her step­sis­ter’s daugh­ter Nicki, a protest artist who moves into Cas­san­dra’s base­ment in re­turn for pho­to­copy­ing and dog walk­ing du­ties. While Cas­san­dra’s idea of worth­while art is mid-cen­tury British sculp­ture, Nicki prefers to chal­lenge the pa­tri­archy through bur­lesque per­for­mance. And then on a friend’s hen night, she en­coun­ters a dan­ger­ous man – and fobs him off with Cas­san­dra’s phone num­ber in place of her own.

This gives rise to some nice in­ter­gen­er­a­tional com­edy: peo­ple send each other dick pics and death threats ev­ery day, Cas­san­dra is told, when she shows a friend the re­sult­ing stream of ob­scene threat­en­ing mes­sages. It also de­vel­ops into a grim mur­der plot rem­i­nis­cent of the true crime TV shows she favours, which sits un­com­fort­ably along­side the art world com­edy and un­der­stated satire of an age­ing estab­lish­ment.

But then the in­tri­ca­cies of mid­dle-class dis­com­fort, and the myr­iad chal­lenges to its com­pla­cency, have been Sim­monds’ stock in trade for four decades now, ever since her car­toons of fam­ily life be­gan run­ning in the Guardian in the late 1970s. The large artsy clan in Mrs We­ber’s Di­ary read the Guardian as well as ap­pear­ing in it, and wor­ried about ev­ery­thing from struc­tural­ism and the death of the 60s dream down to whose turn it was to clean out the guinea pigs. The days of big hair and big glasses are long gone, but over the years Sim­monds’ work has built into a unique so­cial his­tory, as funny as it is telling. Where once ev­ery crowd scene was a smok­ing scene, in Cas­san­dra Darke it’s a phone scene, each trans­fixed in­di­vid­ual per­fectly caught by Sim­monds’ pen­cil. Beards and bob­ble hats are in; cars are chunkier than ever; toothy gallery as­sis­tants can only af­ford Waltham­stow th­ese days. (Brexit

Cas­san­dra Darke

Wom­anspread­ing Cas­san­dra Darke in­vades her fel­low pas­sen­gers’ space on the Tube

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