Ian, a young man with a fractured family history, travels from Australia to England to America in the hope of realizing his dreams and reuniting with his beloved sister. His story unfolds backwards through the framing narrative of Jim, a reporter driven to capture Ian’s experiences in a novel: not simple.
I normally reserve my comments about a comic’s art for somewhere near the end of my review, but since the fact that Natsume Ono’s style deviates from the manga norm is glaringly obvious, I thought I’d address it first. Her art is spare and kind of squiggly, true, and yet it’s absolutely perfect, adding to rather than detracting from the narrative. I honestly cannot imagine this heartbreaking story being illustrated in any other way; to pair it with pretty art would be too wrong for words, so don’t let the lack of same be a deterrent.
If you, like me, have ever thought, “Why don’t more stories have sad endings?” then not simple is the manga for you. That’s not even a spoiler, really, since the structure of the story reveals the fate of Ian, the hapless protagonist, practically immediately. The book begins with a conversation between Jim, a writer, and Ian, in which Jim announces, “You’re going to be my next novel.” From there, a prologue depicts the end of Ian’s story, in which he is a drifter looking to keep a rendezvous with a woman he met years earlier, before shifting back in time to chronologically cover his life from childhood until the moment he leaves for the meeting.
The hardships and misfortunes of Ian’s existence are beyond many, and just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does. Growing up in Australia as the child of a drunken mother and absentee father, he’s extremely close to his sister, Kylie. When Kylie is sent to prison for robbery—her means for funding a new life with Ian by her side—he’s left alone at home, and after his parents divorce, ends up living in London with his mother. Upon her release, Kylie finds him there and they have the briefest of brief reunions before she sends him back to Melbourne to be with his dad and promises that they’ll meet again once he achieves his dream.
Years pass. Ian has always loved running, and his dream is to break a certain runner’s record. He and Jim originally met when Jim was assigned to interview him, and they reconnect when Ian’s peculiarly jubilant response to placing fourth in a race attracts the notice of Jim’s editor. Ian, having achieved his goal, now feels free to seek out his sister. His search is long and disappointing, hindered by a series of terribly unlucky near-misses and a set of relatives that don’t care much about Kylie or Ian, let alone helping them achieve a reunion.
If this sounds like just about the most depressing story around, that isn’t far off the mark. And yet, it never strays into implausible territory. Ian is a likable guy—a strangely pure and innocent person who is, simultaneously, somewhat of an enigma—but the stresses of his life begin to take their toll and the final time he shows up at Jim’s place, after an absence of two years, the change is palpable. For years, he’s been matter-of-fact about the horrible things that have happened to him, but finally is so worn down that he’s become haggard and yearns only for the warm personal relationships that have been denied him. Jim’s an interesting observer, as well, ignoring his own family about as strenuously as Ian searches for his. If there’s anything I could complain about with not simple, it’s that we don’t learn more about Jim’s particular circumstances.
Depressing or not, not simple is masterfully told and completely unforgettable. If I had to sum it up in one word it would be this: haunting.
Review copy provided by the publisher.