STARRED REVIEW

September 29, 2021

The best debut memoirs of 2021 so far

Shoutout to all the first-time memoirists whose words have made us clutch their books to our chests so far this year. Here are the personal stories of family, tragedy, love and identity that stand above the rest.

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Magdalena Herrera has a lot of responsibilities. On top of trying to finish high school, she works a part-time job and is the sole caregiver for her grandmother. Mags has a lot of secrets as well. She’s hooking up with a girl who has a boyfriend. And every night she disappears down a trapdoor in her house, and emerges drained in more than one way.

Then her childhood best friend, Nessa, shows up for the first time in a decade, and starts asking questions the Herreras don’t want anyone to ask. What’s more, Nessa is stirring up feelings that Mags long ago accepted people in her family can never have. But Nessa has secrets, too, and the girls are about to learn the hard way that secrets thrive best in the dark.

The Deep Dark is a moving and eerie graphic novel exploring identity, generational trauma and queer love. Molly Knox Ostertag takes the successful elements of her previous books, The Girl From the Sea and The Witch Boy trilogy, and elevates them. Her characters are complex and nuanced, and their dialogue is natural and impassioned. Ostertag expertly interweaves magical realism and mystery into what is also an adorable love story.

The art is stunning, with expressive characters and the beautiful setting of the Southern California desert. Ostertag twists typical comic conventions, coloring the present almost exclusively in black and white, while the flashbacks are in full color, making it apparent that Mags’ life has been in shades of gray since Nessa left. Page gutters are black during night scenes, intensifying the creepiness. Throughout, Ostertag’s dynamic illustrations elicit emotional responses; for example, panels get progressively smaller during a moment of panic, literally creating tunnel vision.

The Deep Dark leaves some questions unanswered, but that’s the point: A conflict as intricate as the one in this story cannot be wrapped up neatly. But as Ostertag discusses in her author’s note, this graphic novel follows the “first careful steps of unraveling,” and you’ll root for Mags and Nessa to keep taking those steps.

The Deep Dark is a moving and eerie graphic novel exploring identity, generational trauma and queer love.
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Theo remembers feeling uncomfortable with how the world saw them from a very young age. Frustrations built up, from boys assuming that they couldn’t play chess to being forced to cut their own hair because hairdressers always insisted on more feminine looks. But experiences in art school, at comic-cons and playing tabletop roleplaying games, plus countless searches on the internet, led Theo to realize they feel most at home identifying as nonbinary.

Homebody, by debut author Theo Parish, is a delightful, beautiful graphic memoir celebrating the journey they took to discover their gender identity. Reading it feels like receiving a warm hug. Parish dedicates Homebody “for you, whenever and however you need it,” offering frequently interspersed epiphanies anyone can hold on to, such as “living authentically in a world that takes every opportunity . . . to squeeze you uncomfortably into a box of someone else’s design . . . is the most radical act of self love.”

Parish generates gorgeous imagery through a color palette of pinks and blues, sometimes blending the colors together. Shades of joyful pink illustrate Theo’s moments of gender euphoria. The most striking time Parish uses purple is in a full-page introspection about moments when they felt . Throughout the memoir, Theo is drawn with a literal house for their body, as an extended metaphor that is both powerful and charming.

This title truly matches the sweet nature and adorable, expressive illustrations of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper, while being exceptional in its own way as a nonfiction offering. On the first page, Parish lists facts about their life before even mentioning that they’re nonbinary: In this vein, while Parish includes musings concerning general transgender and nonbinary identity, Homebody is first and foremost a memoir centered around Parish’s specific coming of age in England. Still, through this deeply personal exploration of gender identity, many who traditionally have been left out of narrative storytelling may see their own experiences reflected, as Parish “[shines] a beacon of hope to those yet to flourish.” 

Homebody is a delightful, beautiful graphic memoir celebrating the journey Theo Parish took to discover their gender identity.

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