Review by Karl Verhoven
In Memories from Limón Costa Rican cartoonist Edo Brenes uses his country’s natural beauty as the background to Ramiro’s investigation into his family history, prompted by his mother discovering a box of old photographs dating back to the early 1940s. It’s an exotic approach as it’s a fair bet even people who could pick out Costa Rica on a map have little idea about its areas and social culture.
Accompanied by photographs to prompt memories, Ramiro interviews the now much older people who are pictured. It’s never entirely clarified whether this is biographical or fictionalised, but noting at the end that one person died three weeks after being interviewed suggests the former, with Ramiro standing in for Brenes. Either way, Brenes provides an authenticity by constantly using illustrations of photographs or drawing his own in that style. They’re largely posed, but some are snapped, showing people having fun back in the past, and they’re very nicely coloured in subtle pastel tones. The family relationships are complex, and although no names are repeated, the inclusion of a family tree halfway through is welcome. A considerate touch is highlighting those interviewed, and another is using different scripts for each person’s dialogue.
Perhaps there ought to be some expectation of the refined craft, as Brenes won the Observer’s 2019 graphic short story prize with some of what features here, but extending that into a full graphic novel hasn’t entirely worked. Brenes serves up an overdose because his pace is so slow. In attempting to pass on the rhythms of leisurely conversations too many topics are ordinary, and too many tales are included as repeated by different people. The repetition reveals different perspectives, but the variations aren’t large enough to justify them.
Ramiro learns how circumstances and relationships change, and eventually reaches a key revelation. The interviews have been separated by a sequences of chronological interludes set in the past when the characters speak for themselves from their early teens, featuring Ramiro’s grandmother Rosario, his grandfather Virgilio, and his grandfather’s older brother Osvaldo. This is the essence of the story Brenes is telling, a tragedy in some ways, concluding with a visit to a 95 year old Osvaldo now afflicted with dementia. He confuses past and present, yet when he’s shown looking at a picture of Rosario and saying “There’s no-one in this world I adore more than her”, it has a deep layered sadness. The screw of heartfelt sorrow is turned still further by a chance discovery.
Ultimately Memories from Limón contains some amazing moments of beautifully drawn family drama, but it’s a missed opportunity. It’s good, but not as good as it might have been because Brenes hasn’t cut to the core of the story he’s telling, perhaps because he’s too close to it. Something a third to half the length concentrating on what matters would have made for a far more gratifying experience. For a first graphic novel, though, it’s sturdy step, and Brenes should become a talent whose work is anticipated.