Image of cover of House of Women

Review of House of Women by Sophie Goldstein

The encroaching wilderness threatens a small convent of nuns on an alien planet.


IMG: Cover of House of Women
Sophie Goldstein’s second solo graphic novel was released last year by Fantagraphics.

A planet, surreal and uncharted, is defined by a plume of smoke that approaches. The chaotic atmosphere of a wild land is framed by the tumultuous vapors of an industrial figure. These plumes form a connection between the untamed land and the steel hull of the advancing spaceship–the first of many thresholds to cross, captured in four panels, a single page.

House of Women is the second solo graphic novel by Sophie Goldstein. Billed as a psychosexual science fiction drama, the comic explores the relationship between a convent of nuns and the new and wild planet they’ve been tasked to cultivate. There are four sisters: Sarai, the youngest and most curious of the strange new planet; Kizzy, the motherly optimist; Aphra, the leader of the group; and Rhivka, a preoccupied and brooding scientist. Kizzy and Aphra, the eldest two, are excited to set up a colony on the wild planet. Sarai and Rhivka, however, seem more interested in the wilds surrounding them than their own traditional culture. They both take an interest in Mr. Dean, the lone resident of the planet who has lived there for seven years.

The plot of House of Women is reminiscent of  the plot of Black Narcissus, a 1947 drama that also stars a convent of nuns who are set to colonize the wilds of an “uncivilized” world. Both stories even share a character with Mr. Dean, the rugged man who sparks an internal conflict among the two youngest nuns. However, House of Women explores a fantastical world that allows Goldstein to play with the visual elements of each page. Stark blacks and whites commonly swirl and tesselate into strange flora and fauna. The alien lifeforms of the planet also hold more mystery than the Himalayas of Black Narcissus, which Goldstein uses to create intrigue as the plot progresses.

As the nuns tend to the convent, they begin to educate the local alien children. These children each have four large eyes on their head, and their legs are goatlike, as if inspired by fauns. As Sarai and Rhivka both deal with their repressed feelings concerning Mr. Dean, these creatures also have their own internal conflicts between learning the nuns’ culture and returning to their wild homeland.

Goldstein’s art style, while simplistic and unassuming, is emotionally evocative. Her straight and meticulous linework, seen around the nuns’ convent, begins to curl and sway as tensions rise and the looming wilds creep in. Rectangular panels that frame the nuns become reformed, pressed upon by the wild landscape that surrounds them. The negative space in these moments is clearly the most interesting point of the novella. The black and white artwork mingle to create wide, sculpted landscapes that constantly spar with the constricting, growing mass of the natural world. This back and forth is both thematically appropriate as well as aesthetically pleasing, a duality that gives the piece a mystical nature that is present as early on as the front cover. The composition works in concordance with the plot, which is kept at a steady pace and can often be digested on its own.

House of Women may contain a familiar story, but it is set in a new and fantastic setting that gives Goldstein’s visual prowess a new canvas to explore. The structure of the art and the well conceived mise-en-scene will give readers reason to re-read. Overall, the graphic novel is an exemplary effort and a show of skill for an a returning artist who will doubtlessly continue to refine her abilities in her future work.

Author photo for Matthew EspinosaAssistant fiction editor Matthew Espinosa will soon graduate with a major in Creative Writing and a minor in History from Lake Superior State University, where he also received the Georgegeen Gaertner award. After that, he’ll be off in search of a graduate school, keeping busy with writing and drawing along the way.