Tillie Walden (A City Inside, The End of Summer) says of her new autobiographical novel, Spinning - covering her teenage years as a figure skater - that "it ended up not being about ice skating at all".
Instead Spinning ends up being one of those rare books that's not particularly about anything, but potentially about almost everything. This quality means that what you get out of this book really does depend on what you bring to it. In writing about it, therefore, you may end up revealing more about your own preoccupations than you'd really like to. With that in mind, let’s delve into just what I thought Spinning was all about.
The graphic novel, published by SelfMadeHero, written and drawn by Walden, covers the years of Walden’s life between 12 and 17, the prime teenage years, and so sits firmly into the ‘coming-of-age’ genre. While it is mainly set on or around ice rinks, its first movement features the 12 year old Walden discovering her family is moving from New Jersey to Austin. This unexpected and life-altering change is, I believe, characteristic of much of a child's life. So often children face massive, inexplicable upheavals and go through their lives without control or consent. Coming-of-age stories can be seen as a move from the lack of control a child has, subject to the whims of parents, teachers and (as we see) ice-skating coaches.
Being moved across the country means that a young Tillie has to rebuild her life entirely, finding new friends and adapting to new surroundings and challenges. Walden captures the isolation of a new kid in town with painful accuracy. Panel after panel depicts Tillie looking on at groups of friends, standing alone at the margins or lagging behind a gaggle of fellow skaters. The body language of the young Tillie is depicted with excruciating accuracy: the clenched hands, crossed arms and ducked head, as if she's trying to disappear into herself. Even on the ice, where we might hope for relief as Tillie opens up physically, the body language is all tense control - coupled with a constant commentary of everything that could go wrong in each move. While her life outside of ice-skating is completely out of her hands, Tillie's time in the rink is firmly about maintaining control. As the book moves through trials of growing up become more intense it becomes clear that skating is just another part of Tillie's life where control is an illusion.
Walden writes in her author's note at the end of the book that "this book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling." In that case, I would wonder about Walden's parents' feelings over their portrayal in the book. From the beginning her mother seems disinterested and cold, to a level that is almost abusive. Her reaction to her daughter’s successes and failures in ice skating are met with a monotonous concern only with the financial cost of either outcome. Walden is careful not to make a villain of her mother/mother character in this book. We can see the stress in her mother’s face and the tell-tale table full of bills, but we also hear the cold words and disregard. The feeling conveyed here is more resonant than whether or not these exchanges are factually accurate. Almost every child has one time or another felt the sting of parental disregard. Be it achievements going unacknowledged, problems waved away or feelings ignored, adults' concerns often trample over the lives of their children.
If this graphic memoir is about conveying a feeling rather than a memory (and, interestingly, Walden does use the word ‘feeling’ in the singular) then the colour palette used is a huge part of that process. An awful lot of Spinning uses white as its primary colour, but this isn’t white used simply as an absence of colour. As so much of this book takes place on or around ice, it makes sense that there’s a lot of white, but Walden’s use goes further. Her choice to omit background detail in a lot of panels means that characters seem to be adrift in the ice-white and, when Tillie is ever alone in a panel, the white begins to have real presence. Just as the rink becomes a foil for everything going on in her life, so does the white of the ice flow and seep into every page.
Other than white, there is simple block black and water-colour grey shading and, as a highlight colour, yellow. The softness of the shading gives life and curves to what would otherwise be a very stark read. The yellow, on the other hand, appears most often with an edge of threat or discomfort; it’s the flash of headlights, the glare of stadium lamps and flash-bulbs, the light of the outside world shining in on two young girls just discovering their sexuality. Walden employs this colour economically and efficiently, culminating, I think, in its use in a series of small panels during Tillie’s big skating solo. The pages begin with mostly white panels, then more black - giving Tillie’s thoughts as she skates. When things start to go wrong, panels appear depicting wobbles until one, larger yellow block simple has the words, small amongst the colour; “don’t cry”.
I admit that, despite enjoying Walden’s work in the past, I had little interest in picking up a book about someone’s childhood ice-skating days, but I’m so glad I did. Autobiographical comics are coming thick and fast at the moment and, at their worst, they can be insular, self-obsessed and navel-gazing. Tillie Walden avoids all of the usual pitfalls by not getting lost in her subject matter and treating her life with detachment to avoid becoming reverential or mawkish. Not to say this book is without feeling, but rather that the feeling is so accurately, painfully, depicted that it can only have come from a masterful storyteller at the top of her game.