Poignant Graphic Novel ‘Ephemera’ Explores an Oakland Artist’s Lonely Childhood

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An illustration showing a young woman kneeling on the ground next to gardening tools, while the ghostly white figure of an older woman stands behind her, long white hair flowing in the breeze.
In ‘Ephemera’, Briana Loewinsohn explores her family history via her relationship with nature. Here, she feels the spirit of her mother in the garden she grew up in.  (Fantagraphics Books Inc.)

There is a profound yearning in Briana Loewinsohn’s new graphic novel Ephemera that diligently creeps throughout, like so many vines in search of daylight. It’s a yearning that’s unspoken, lurking in empty corners and open fields. It’s present in small, desperate acts and silent scenes of isolation. That yearning provides a depth to the Oakland artist’s debut memoir that takes surface beauty and transforms it into something devastating.

Ephemera (Fantagraphics; $24.99) is the story of Loewinsohn’s childhood, of growing up with a mentally ill, neglectful mother who would disappear for extended periods, leaving Loewinsohn and her brother unattended. The author turned to nature for comfort, embracing tree branches, grass blades and potted plants when there was nothing to hold onto at home.

An illustration depicts a small girl lying on a tree branch. A caption above her reads 'Feeling your absence.'
Nature and trees appear as a source of comfort in ‘Ephemera.’ (Fantagraphics Books Inc.)

Told from the perspective of the adult Loewinsohn as she returns to her childhood home in Berkeley to tend to the gardens there, the story distinguishes between the artist’s past and present using subdued but distinct color palettes. Her past is brought to life in blues and grays, emphasizing the coldness of the family home and the haze inherent to memories. Her present is tinged with reds, oranges and browns, like a new dawn, albeit one still contained in half-light.

The vegetation around Loewinsohn is a reflection of her past, her present and her desire to heal. (“Sometimes,” Loewinsohn notes at one point, “I worry about the plants that grow alone.”) In tending to her childhood gardens in the present day, Loewinsohn is repaying the living things that nurtured her as a child. But she’s also honoring her absent mother, who took better care of the plants in her care than the children.

Loewinsohn shares restrained but sometimes agonizing realizations about how little love can sustain living things. “A little water can go a long way,” she notes after reviving one potted plant that appeared close to death.

An illustration showing a small girl curled up alone in a large bed, surrounded on all side by giant flowers and vines.
The young Loewinsohn curled up in her mother's bed, seeking comfort. (Fantagraphics Books Inc.)

What makes Ephemera extra-special is that it’s an almost wordless meditation. That quietude emphasizes the loneliness of Loewinsohn’s childhood in a manner that is frequently heart-wrenching. (I don’t remember a graphic novel that has ever made me cry as much as this one did.)


Helpfully, there is much grace and optimism here too — particularly in the understanding that beautiful things may still grow out of shadows. For that, and many other reasons, Ephemera is an unusual and profoundly moving work.

‘Ephemera’ publishes March 21 via Fantagraphics Books. Loewinsohn will read and appear in conversation with graphic novelist Thien Pham at 7 p.m. on March 21 at Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts in Berkeley. Details here. Loewinsohn will also be in conversation with Gene Luen Yang and doing a book signing at Green Apple Books in San Francisco at 7 p.m. on March 27. Details here.