Essex County by Jeff Lemire: Review

I don't know if you remember but Essex County by Jeff Lemire was a contender in the 2011 Canada Reads contest. It was up against some other great books but unfortunately it fell out of the running the first day. There was a big dust up and much poo-pooing because it was a graphic novel.

Of all the other contenders, Essex County's most similar opponent was probably Unless by Carol Shields. Both deal with family issues; some members of a family fail to communicate with another leading to misunderstandings and regret. There are secrets. In Unless, Norah's secret is an unusual one, where in Essex the secrets are heartbreaking but rather ordinary.

Essex County conveys the Big Sad Canadian Novel feeling as much as any of the usual suspects only with pictures. Is there anything sadder than a little boy thinking about his dead mother? Or lonelier? There is a sense of 'this is a big country and we are very small' through drawings of empty fields and empty houses. Every panel expresses emotion, even when that panel lacks a human figure.

The plot, if there is one, revolves around three characters living in Essex county: an orphaned boy, an elderly hockey player and a travelling nurse. All three stories are connected though it isn't obvious at first. All characters have heavy burdens. And there is much hockey.

One of the ways I know a book is good is when I'm still thinking about it days if not weeks later. I've been doing that with Essex County. It felt very real to me. These people's stories could be your neighbours' stories. There was only one thing that bugged me (AND THIS MIGHT BE A BIT SPOILERY): the girlfriend. I didn't see any reason for her to do it with the brother. I didn't feel that there was anything between them besides hanging out a lot together. This bugged me. Just because you have a brother doesn't mean your girl will have sex with him if you leave them alone together for 5 minutes. What was her problem? Maybe it's because I'm a woman that it bugged me (and offended me a little too). I needed some more explanation there. And really, that was not cool of the brother especially since they were supposed to be so close.

I most definitely recommend Essex County for its quintessential Canadian qualities.


  1. Hi Chris, this is a new-to-me book - really enjoyed your review and learning more about it. The description makes it sound like a traditional novel/story collection, I almost missed that it was a graphic novel- made me more curious about the experience of reading graphic novel.

  2. I've only recently taken to graphic novels. Some are pretty much just novels only with pictures not words. Essex County has a very traditional storyline. I hope you give it a try!

  3. Never heard of this one before, but it sounds like a deep, interesting graphic novel. I'll have to look into it, although I'm pretty sure that thing about the girlfriend would bug me, too.

    Thanks for the great review!

  4. I agree - any book that lingers in your mind is a good one.

  5. Yay! So glad you enjoyed it.

    And bermudaonion, I disagree. It could linger for all the wrong reasons.

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  7. Great review. I love books that stay with me days and weeks after I read them. I hadn't heard of the author or the book before, but now I will keep an eye open for it. And I just love the bookmark in your header photo, the crochet bookmark I want. :-)

  8. I loved this book too! I found the emotions so real that I was actually crying at one point.

  9. Penelope- I hope you give it a try!

    Kathy- Yes, it is.

    John- lol! Well, maybe...

    Lena- Thank you!

    Kate- It was very realistic.

  10. I read this as three seperate volumes and enjoyed each but especially the first one. A crying shame that Essex County fell out of contention so early! Honestly, I was much more annoyed by certain comments from some panelists discounting EC as a "real" book than I was by said girlfriend.

  11. I read Ash's review (English Major Junk Food) a few weeks back and have been eager to read this since then. Sadly my library doesn't stock this, so I'm going to look for this at my bookstore. It truly sounds awesome if it keeps you thinking for a few days.


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