Book Review: The Inflatable Woman, by Rachael Ball
Cartoons and courage in a thoughtful, original tale of a patient battling cancer
The Inflatable Woman
‘Last night as I was sleeping, I dreamt – marvellous error! – that I had a beehive here inside my heart. And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.” An epigraph from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado captures the essence of The Inflatable Woman, a startling and imaginative debut about a woman battling illness.
The protagonist of Rachael Ball’s graphic novel is Iris Pink-Percy, a single woman looking for love whose life is put on hold when she discovers she has breast cancer. An opening dream sequence has Iris running from an unnamed fear, only to be flattened by a boulder, with the sparse, accurate description: “Splat”. The it-was- only-a-dream beginning is elevated by Ball’s vivid graphics. Pencil drawings against a black background highlight Iris’s predicament as the world turns bleak around her.
The 17 chapters that follow use elements of magic realism to tell a heartfelt tale of a woman trying to overcome illness and regain her spirit. It is both poignant and funny. Ball combines visceral imagery of everything from prodding needles to breast reconstruction with a carefully considered, sparing use of text that lets her drawings tell the story.
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The handsome, hardbound edition from Bloomsbury runs to more than 500 pages, giving space for each individual image. Eyes, breasts, sea storms, skeletal children, and animals in particular, all feature and make the story come alive. With plenty of surrealist sequences, Ball blends the real world with the illusory to great effect. On hearing the news of her cancer, a chain of paper girl cut-outs in a striking pinkish-red floats away from Iris. A letter from Hoopers Hospital scheduling her mastectomy is stark and almost childlike in its pencil script.
Gritty realityThere are no flashy images or graphics in The Inflatable Woman, just an unassuming pencil depicting a gritty reality. Inspired by the author’s own experiences with breast cancer, the book is an honest and modern account of the burden of illness.
From Blackpool, Ball is a cartoonist and teacher whose illustrations have appeared in City Life, Deadline, the Times Educational Supplement and the Radio Times. Her debut novel creates an original and memorable character in Iris, a zookeeper whose best friends include singing penguins, her colleague Maud and the curmudgeonly Grandma Suggs, whose minor grievances in the face of Iris’s catastrophe bring humour to the story.
Ball uses a light touch on her dark subject and there are funny moments throughout Iris’s journey: an inconsolable female doctor delivers news of the cancer; the larger than life Dr Magic gives ludicrous options for breast reconstruction; a colony of intellectual penguins argue about which way water goes down a plughole; scary Nurse Bobbi hops up on Iris’s bed after her surgery.
A second plotline also brings light to the story, with Iris turning to online dating to escape the cancer. Under the alias balletgirl42, she connects with Henry, sailorbuoy 39, and quickly falls in love. Ball captures the online dating scene with her clever drawings: the initial bursts of enthusiastic communication, the build-up to the first meeting, the tall tales.
To Henry, Iris is a dog lover and a world-class ballet dancer, writing to him after a performance in Gdansk. In reality, she’s struggling to get out of bed, hides from her friends, tolerates dogs and is three days away from her mastectomy. The online relationship allows her to imagine another life, one with a certain and hopeful future.
As the calendar fills up with dates for blood tests, chemotherapy and oncologist appointments, Iris’s date with sailorbuoy is the single highlight. Letting herself indulge the fantasy brings more laughs – Iris buys a wedding veil after their first date; Henry gets a sudden posting to the North Pole after Iris says that she loves him – but also disappointment and, ultimately, a crash back to reality as Iris is forced to face her situation.
It’s not all about the drawings either. There’s a lyricism to Iris’s thoughts, with poetry from Whitman, Hemingway and Melville, and the use of nursery rhymes particularly effective as she contemplates death.
As Iris waits for the news of her scan, lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem The Sick Child show her pain and fear: “O Mother, lay your hand on my brow. O Mother, where am I now?” In a surreal episode, doctors and various animals give a rendition of Who Killed Cock Robin while Iris is unconscious on the operating table: “‘Who’ll make the shroud? ‘I’, said the beetle, ‘with my needle and thread. I’ll make the shroud.’ ‘Who’ll dig his grave?’ ‘I’, said the owl ‘with my pick and shovel. I’ll dig the grave.’”
Combined with Ball’s powerful imagery, such lines leave a lasting impression. This is a thoughtful and original debut that brings the plight of a cancer patient into full focus. Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist