My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked this up alongside The Search by the same author. Both books are published in collaboration with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and focus on the Dutch during World War Two. Whilst I found the sister title a little structurally awkward, A Family Secret was rather stunning.
The grand dame of graphic novels featuring World War Two is pretty definitely Maus. Here’s what I thought of that. The Search and A Family Secret form a vital contribution to the field.
In A Family Secret, Helena tells her grandson Jeroen about her experiences during the war. It utilises what I would describe as a fairly Tintin-esque structure; solid panels with white gutter inbetween. It’s rare that the action deviates from this structure which, whilst isn’t the most avant-garde style, does lead to an easily accessible read. Lettering wise, it’s fairly linear and uniform, but as the angle this is taking is that of an educational comic, it’s something I can pass.
What makes this book unique (I think, let me know if I’ve missed a title), is how it treats the concept of collaboration. Helena’s father is a collaborator. There’s a twist in his tale that I won’t spoil but it did take me genuinely by surprise. Heuvel doesn’t stint on his depiction of this, and what’s almost more (interesting? horrendous?) is what occurs on the sidelines of Helena’s story. There’s one sequence where she is going through Amsterdam and we witness an unnamed woman who has her hair publically shaved and the swastika painted on her forehead. It’s a brief but vicious sequence and one more chilling in how it is so briefly and matter of factly presented.
This is a vital book, and one that provides a unique perspective and angle on events that many of us may think we already know. What’s also unique about this is how it treats some fairly dark topics, such as ‘sleeping with the enemy’, being a Prisoner of War, and collaboration, and it would be a useful book to use in discussions around this topic.