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Book review: When David lost his voice , by Judith Vanistendael

Writing and illustrating a book about cancer is a challenging task especially when you want to keep your humanistic view of the patient and his relationship with family. “When David Lost His Voice” was written by Judith Vanistendael and published in 2012. Judith Vanistendael studied at the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin (Germany), earned an academic degree in art sciences from the University of Ghent (Belgium), and did postgraduate studies on Latin America. Her second graphic novel When David lost his voice was nominated for an Eisner Award[1][2] , the most prestigious prize for comics.

This is of course, not the first graphic novel to explore living with cancer. “Cancer Vixen” by Marisa Acocella Marchetto, was published in 2007 and Stitches by David Small in (2009) are good examples of first-person narratives[1]. “When David lost his voice” is written from a 3rd person point of view. The book tells the story of David’s illness and the events that take place after his diagnosis. David’s relationship with his family and how family members think about and deal with his situation inform the story.

The book is illustrated in pen, ink, watercolor and colored pencil. The drawing line is vibrant and the merging of hand-writing fonts along with a delicate use of colors creates a moving visual story.[2].

The book has five chapters: a prologue, Miriam, Tamar, Paula and David. Other than the first chapter, the other titles refer to 5 members of David’s family: his wife, two daughters and himself. A family tree that is provided before all of these chapters shows the relationships among the characters.

The story begins with David’s diagnosis of laryngeal cancer. It is demonstrated by a medical illustration which is drawn by his physician to describe the involved site. In flashback frames we can find the past history of Miriam and Tamar. The back bone of the story remains the progression of David’s cancer and its impact on his family.

Each character tries to deal with their own sadness and worries in different ways. Everyone has a different attitude towards sickness and death[1]. It seems that his daughter, Miriam is mostly “tracking” David’s condition visually (pg. 79-83). His wife manifests deeper “worries” about David’s health condition and tracks David’s health status through diagnostic X-rays, MRIs and scans that show the cancer’s metastasis (pg. 142-143, 161-162, 188-194).She never changes her black shirt during the story which may reflect her growing despair, Tamar, his 9 year old daughter ,has a different approach: she wants to mummify him.

In one frame we see a different reaction from patient and physician regarding the same situation: pg.206 shows us the different meaning of “good news” to Paula and to the physician. In this scene, the doctor tells Paula: “I have good news; tomorrow, we’re moving him into a private room”. This “good news” has a hidden meaning for Paula as it reflects the worsening of David’s condition.

The book addresses other themes. Issues like birthing in water (pg. 21-30), euthanasia (pg.254-267), delirium (pg.244-247), nightmares (pg.72-78), confidentiality(pg.61) and homecare (pg.186) are also illustrated . In contrast, the details of David’s treatment plan are not provided.

The hidden role of David’s nanny as a source of hope, support and kindness is an interesting twist.

At the end, David is traveling on a stormy and dark sea in a small boat smiles upon reaching calmer waters.


[1]When David lost his voice, by Judith Vanistendael, SelfMade Hero, 2012, ISBN 978-1-906838-54-6, CAN $27.95






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