Irmina – Barbara Yelin

In the mid-1930s, Irmina, an ambitious young German, moves to London. At a cocktail party, she meets Howard Green, one of the first black students at Oxford, who, like Irmina, is working towards an independent existence. However, their relationship comes to an abrupt end when Irmina, constrained by the political situation in Hitler’s Germany, is forced to return home. As war approaches and her contact with Howard is broken, it becomes clear to Irmina that prosperity will only be possible through the betrayal of her ideals.

When it comes to World War II and graphic novels, the book that seems to be most referenced is Maus, which is a good read although is not without its flaws.  Irmina on the other hand is much more mature and rewarding, it should be a required read for everybody.

Based around the diaries and letters of Barbara Yelin’s grandmother, this story is a well-researched and deeply layered examination of ordinary lives torn apart by the war.  |it’s a worth inquest and goes much further than most books do in getting to the route of the psychological impacts of the Nazi regime.

Irmina and Howard are both looked down on socially and distained, the outcasts shared loneliness becomes a strong bond, the tenuousness of which is soon shown as the war approaches.  As the book shifts towards life in Germany for Irmina, the reader witnesses her slow change through adversity – and choice – in her decisions and attitude towards all that she stands for holds dear.

Our protagonist is written in a believable and balanced way, she makes mistakes and the changes in her are gradual sometimes imperceptible, allowing the reader is left to decide whether Irmina is aware of all of her choices or not.

The book explores plenty of weighty issues, like speaking out against a repressive system, the amount of knowledge that the everyday German had about the treatment of Jewish people and to what extent they were aware of the Holocaust. Questions are posed about how much responsibility the individual bears and how much is out of their control. Most notably the contradictory way German women were both repressed but also emancipated at the same time is well examined.

The looming spectre of National Socialism is at the centre of everything, invading all aspects of life with the continual promise of a better, more communal society.  The coercion of its citizens is unsettling to watch unfold as are the roles played by the individual in the collective, and to the extent with which they wish the regime to succeed.

The art style is restrained, there are lots of dark colours and the detail is muted throughout, perhaps this is just me, but it seems to mirror the war generations silence on the matters they were intimately connected with.  Irmina is an impressive piece of work, giving the reader plenty of scope for examination of the character, the times they lived in, and also his or herself.

8 Replies to “Irmina – Barbara Yelin”

    1. This is a great place to start, lots to get your teeth into with this one. There are some quality graphic novels out there, its an area worth delving into.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m not one for graphic novels, but the only only I’ve read all the way through is the “Maus” book, and what I believe was a follow-up book to it. I enjoyed the galllows humor as well as the educational element, the thing from the perspective of people who endured it and their relatives. But graphic novels in general defeat the purpose for me, which is to read words.

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    1. I like to dabble but like you, the words are the foremost thing in mind when a book is being looked for. I don’t like to compare Maus and Irmina too much but there were times when I got tired of the whole family dynamic and interruptions to the story. At least with Irmina the story flows and feels much more subtle. Strangely when it comes to art I do prefer the big two page illustrations than the smaller box illustrations but for me the story of Irmina will stay with me more than the artwork, such is the way my brain works.

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    1. I’m ashamed to say that I had had this knocking about for years but for reasons I never got around to it, gutted it took me this long but it is one of the frew books where a further reading will give back in equal amounts with the first read.

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    1. I think it all depends on how long the reader wishes to spend examining Irmina’s choices, it never felt heavy, despite its themes, the story was much too riveting for that.

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