The three graphic novels that make up Jeff Lemire's The Collected Essex County weave around each other, entwining to tell a singular story of life in a small Canadian province. But it does something more than that (although that is enough): the combination of words and images (everything is done by Lemire) turn each story into an experience, as if you're living the dreams, failures, and complete lives of the interconnected people who inhabit Lemire's world.
The first story, Tales From the Farm, recounts the story of Lester, a young boy living with his uncle on a farm, and his friendship with Jimmy LeBuef, the ex-hockey player who runs the town's general store. First meeting over the purchase of a comic book, Jimmy begins to show up down by the river where Lester plays, and what at first sounds like the beginnings of a sinister story turns into something quite different, as we learn of the connections between Jimmy, Lester, Lester's uncle and his mother, who died years ago. The centerpiece of the book is the second section, Ghost Stories, about two brothers: Vince and Lou LeBuef, who move to the big city to become hockey players. The story moves back and forth in time, showing their lives connecting and fraying through sports, love, family, and eventually loss. It also manages to throw new light on both the previous Tales From the Farm and beautifully sets up the last entry in the collection, The Country Nurse. That story again directly relates back to the first two, this time focusing on a minor character from Ghost Stories who winds up tying everyone's lives together.
If I seem somewhat short with details of the actual plot of each story, it's because The Collected Essex County is best discovered fresh, with as little known about it as possible. It's also because as wonderfully moving and clever as the writing is, this is a graphic novel, and the words wouldn't mean a thing if they weren't coupled with strong art, and Jeff Lemire's stark, B&W inks are mesmerizing to behold. Pencilling, inking, and lettering everything himself, Essex County is at once both highly stylized yet intimately familiar, each line on a face marking emotions so clearly you fall under its spell without having to read the words.
The book itself is a handful: 510 pages and slightly smaller than a typical comic trade paperback and sporting a thick sturdy cover and heavy, high quality paper. Any way you look at it, The Collected Essex County is a gorgeous book, and my pick for Book of the Year for 2009.