“I wondered why I suddenly needed a manual for understanding my friend.”
In But You Have Friends, Emilia McKenzie uses short anecdotes told in comic format to tell the story of a friendship. After frequent moves as a young child, Emilia struggled to fit in and find friends, until she met C. Their friendship blossomed into a deep connection lasting nearly 20 years, until C’s death by suicide in 2018. This memoir is McKenzie’s attempt to process the friendship, C’s death, and her grief.
Emlia and C (Charlotte) met when avoiding lunch during year 10. This friendship felt different from the beginning. Other relationships felt surface level, but C and Emilia were able to talk about deeper issues in their lives, like their emotions and mental health (even when they didn’t quite have the vocabulary to understand it). It was, “just the two of us against the world.”
Long-lasting friendships evolve over time, especially those with foundations in your adolescence. C and Emlia were separated by distance in uni, and their relationship to each other changed, but not in importance. Though only occasionally together, they still found depth in each other without judgment.
C’s mental health issues became more severe while at uni. Eventually, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. After uni, from Emlia’s perspective, C’s mental health ebbs and flows, with a sharp decline in the few years preceding her death.
The book is not McKenzie’s attempt to share C’s life story or to educate anyone about mental health and suicide. It is about friendship. As C’s mental health deteriorates, Emelia makes every attempt to be there as a friend. However mental health is personal and difficult to understand from an outside perspective.
I, fortunately, have not lost a loved one to suicide, but I have had close friends and loved ones deal with severe mental health episodes. This book resonated with me. Some people who shower love onto friends with ease and no judgment are often those same people struggling to find peace for themselves.
McKenzie’s illustrations are hand-drawn with light purple shading (C’s favorite color). Emotion, emphasis, and even age are depicted through simple lines on the face or in the panel. Even the text is handwritten. It is more reminiscent of a diary than a polished published comic. It mirrors the writing, which focuses more on relationships and the emotional response, rather than a cohesive story. The effect is disarmingly intimate. And despite every attempt to appear professional at my desk at work, I felt tears in my eyes throughout the last half of the book. The story affected me more than I realized it would, and I anticipate many others will feel similarly.
But You Have Friends is a tender exploration of friendship, love, and grief. The book is published for an adult audience. It is from the point of view of an adult looking back at the journey of a friendship, and many adult readers will find resonance or parallels with their own relationships. I will be purchasing it for my high school’s collection, as I think many teens will also appreciate a touching memoir about friendship and mental health.
But You Have Friends
By Emilia McKenzie
Top Shelf, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: Borderline Personality Disorder