I must start my review by saying that Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoirs (French Milk, Relish, etc.) frustrate me—I know that she is more or less my contemporary in age (early millennial), predilections (delicious foods! Francophilia!), and social class (lower-upper-middle perhaps?). But her twin tendencies to navel-gaze and universalize her experiences grate on me. I feel almost as though her search for a generalized lesson weakens her carnets de voyages and her moments of apologetic privilege: “no, I’m really not well-off, I just get to eat fancy food because my mom was a chef!” are short-sighted and belie self-absorption without self-awareness. So, I came to Displacement with a huge chip on my shoulder.
Happily, the chip has been removed. Displacement is both a step forward in Knisley’s work as a memoirist and a great and thoughtful work in its own right. How does she accomplish this? By focusing on other people! Displacement is a surprisingly understated story of a seniors cruise on which Knisley accompanies her octogenarian grandparents, digging deep for the patience to handle her grandmother’s dementia and her grandfather’s incontinence. Travel on your own, as Knisley knows well, and has chronicled prolifically, can be stressful enough—travel with people who can’t care for themselves is exhausting and thankless.
But Knisley also knows, and spells out over and over again, that by some stroke of filial piety and some deep well of familial love, she has a duty to her forebears, to care for them as they cared for their children and for her. She’s not starry-eyed or idealistic about the people they once were—moments of conditional love and judgement are recalled clearly—but she respects their persistence and the time she’s spent with them. To wit, at the end of each chapter, she excerpts a section of her grandfather’s World War II memoirs, a potent reminder of how full their lives have been and how much more she has to learn about them. Displacement certainly has something in common with Roz Chast’s Couldn’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, a clear-eyed but deeply loving assessment of the imperfections of one’s aging loved ones, and the challenges and graces that taking care of them can bring.
When one has been blessed to spend time with a person during their declining years, as their mortality comes into clearer and clearer focus, we sometimes begin to grieve before they’re even gone, and I felt this fiercely while reading Displacement. The moments Knisley spends walking up and down the ship’s deck with her grandparents, doing their laundry after they’ve gone to bed, and persuading them to take their medication is not glamorous, but it’s time well spent, and these are moments that Knisley will remember and keep with her after her grandparents have gone.
Lucy, a more-or-less fancy-free twenty-something, feels her own mortality in Displacement, and in doing so, finds a point where her self-reflection strikes a truly universal chord. Mortality, unlike dreamy European idylls, will find us all, in one way or another. For me, Displacement casts Knisley’s previous works in a new light—she’s searching for herself as she becomes an adult who can enunciate and demonstrate her care for others, and in Displacement, especially read in the context of her earlier work, she’s starting to truly acknowledge that she must find herself in the context of other people, specifically within her family.
Knisley’s illustration style doesn’t tread any new ground: weirdly diagrammatic at points, editorialized with lots of text, and loosely panelled like a personal journal in a non-perfect-flowing-manner. Many find it endearing and quirky, but it distracts from the flow of the story. However, her attention to detail grows and develops more with each book she writes, and a perfectly placed photograph mid-story took my breath away.
Displacement may mark a turning point in Knisley’s work, a real step forward along her journey as a storyteller, artist, and young woman. For Knisley’s enthusiasts and nay-sayers alike, it is a must-read. A travelogue that’s funny and sad, mournful and loving, and ultimately mature.
Displacement: A Travelogue
by Lucy Knisley