Review: Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell

Y’all, at some point, I’m going to do a mental illness reading challenge.  Is there already one?  I’m going to do one if there isn’t already one.  I love mental illness (I mean I do not love it.  It is awful and ruins people’s lives.  I just find it very interesting).  As soon as I think of a clever name and invent an adorable button, I will be all over this, and Swallow Me Whole is one of the books you can read for it.  PREPARE YOURSELVES.

I read Swallow Me Whole for the Graphic Novels Challenge!

Swallow Me Whole is about two step-siblings called Ruth and Perry who both see and hear things that other people can’t.  Perry sees a small wizard creature who tells him what to do, sometimes things he doesn’t want to do.  Ruth collects insects in jars and rearranges them endlessly; she hears them speak, and she believes that she can perceive patterns that most of the world is missing.  Ruth starts taking pills; Perry does not.

At first I had some problems with the style of art and the lettering.  The lines are slightly wavery, and the letters are too, and I kept having to read the words twice.  I thought: Aha!  This is what people complain about when they say they have a hard time with graphic novels!  Overwhelming art and letters!  In the end, though, I adjusted and enjoyed the book quite a bit.  Like Ruth and Perry, the reader is not always sure what’s real and what isn’t.  It’s disorienting and scary, which makes it easy to sympathize with the characters.  I love it that Nate Powell writes characters with severe mental illnesses, while keeping them relatable.

I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what happened at the end though.  It made me feel stupid.  I hate it when I finish books and feel stupid.  I finished and felt stupid and resented Nate Powell with his, you know, wobbly lines, and I went online to see what he had to say for himself.  And you know what he said?  He said if there was ambiguity, it was probably down to bad storytelling.  Actually in this case I think I am just stupid, but I appreciate Nate Powell for saying that.

Mental illness challenge.  I’m going to do it.

Other reviews:

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On (thanks for the recommendation!)
Reading Thru the Night

Let me know if I missed yours!

29 thoughts on “Review: Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell

  1. I really need to read this. And a mental illness challenge sounds brilliant. I’m avoiding challenges because I overbooked myself, but I would sign up in a heartbeat. Considering I suffer from bipolar disorder, it’s a subject near and dear to my heart.

    • It’s important to me too. My dad’s a therapist, and my mum and I used to volunteer at a crisis hotline, so my family talks about mental illness a lot. Like, a lot. Like, when I hang out with other people’s families, I start wondering when we’re going to start talking about borderline personality disorder and things. (Answer: NEVER.) So I get really fed up with pop culture using mental illness as a oh-so-convenient plot device for when they want to make a serial killer “layered”.

  2. OK, I’m thinking I must have read something that would qualify for your mental illness challenge but nothing is coming to my mind. Is this some kind of self-sabotage? Would Glass Castles be a good choice? Yes, I think it would…

    • Oo, yes, Glass Castles would be great. I think there are lots of memoirs that would qualify, and there are a lot of nonfiction books about mental illness/medication/psychological theory that I want to read. If I did a challenge, I would try to make a great big list of all the books I can think of that would work for the challenge. I am starting to make that list in my brain…

  3. I’d be interested in a mental illness challenge! Last year I noticed that a surprising number of the books, movies and TV shows I read/watch somehow explore mental health. (Only, watch. If I join your challenge, I will never come across an MH book again, ’cause that’s the way the world works).

    • Really? Like what? I’m so curious! I feel like there are so few really good, layered portrayals of people with mental illnesses. I gave up Six Feet Under recently because the portrayal of the bipolar guy was so ridiculously over the top, and it seems like there are a lot of things like that, just making me angry.

    • AND I WOULD. You would laugh if you knew how many times I have been at the library and looked up Poppy Shakespeare in the library catalog. (They still don’t have it.) (Neither does my bookstore.) (I am crossing my fingers for the university library book sale this Thursday.)

  4. mm, interesting. Have you read I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green (Joanne Greenberg)? It would definitely be a good one for your challenge.

    Also, I think it’s a really good thing to talk about mental illness – it tends to have a hugh social stigma partly because it’s never mentioned but in fact it is very common: according to the Mental Health Foundation (UK), 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year.

    • I think my parents have it, but no, I’ve never read it myself. It looked sort of depressing so I didn’t read it as a kid.

      Yeah, mental illness is so common and it can be really debilitating. I read a report about this study done by the World Health Organization & the NIH (I believe they were the two) that calculated how disabling different things were, and it turns out, you’d rather be paraplegic than actively psychotic.

  5. I’ve seen this book a few times around the blogisphere. I think it’s one I may need to read though I hate books that make me feel stupid. That’s just the worst feeling.

    • I know, I do too, but the rest of the book was really good. Plus I went looking around the internets to see if other people found the ending confusing/ambiguous, and yes, they did. So I may be dumb but I’m not alone. 😛

  6. I’d sign up too! I could finally read Girl, Interrupted, and this, and Epileptic…

    You’re right – respectful portrayals of people with mental illnesses are sadly rare.

    • Girl Interrupted is pretty good, although I do feel the best bit about it was its title. That’s just a really good title. I kind of want to make up the challenge just to make myself read a bunch of the nonfiction books that have been written lately about the efficacy of mental health meds, how well-supported our brain-chemical theories of mental health are, and like that. And to hopefully find more books like Nate Powell’s. 🙂

  7. I thought of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, too, and then I thought about how incredibly dated it was: the thinking when it was written was that psychiatrists could talk people out of conditions like schizophrenia by discovering the psychodynamic “root” of their problem. It strikes me now as so incredibly tragic, the way we ended up blaming people for contracting a biologically based condition.

    But the book was fascinating anyway.

    • Aw, did they think that? Was the root of the problem the character’s fault? Because if the root of the problem is childhood abuse or something like that (in the book, I mean, not in real life), it’s not the character’s fault at all.

    • I will! I was sort of joking when I mentioned it before, but I’m getting more serious about it. I think it would be great to see what people would read!

  8. Jenny, My Dear.
    All I do it seems is read about a book and think ‘OH Jenny might like this!’ Pls forgive if appearring to be stalking-disguised-as-book-recommendating. (I mean, recommending.)

    Just read Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk. I think it would fit your challenge and you would be impressed.


    • Hahahah, all stalking should be disguised as book recommendating. Thanks for the recommendation! It looks a bit like this Johnny Depp film called Don Juan de Marco.

      I do not have a challenge (yet) but I am gradually trying to compile a list and think of a brilliant name to call it…

  9. Johnny Depp film called Don Juan de Marco.

    …is one of my favorite movies. And not just because of Johnny Depp, but it sure helps.

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