Lee Lai’s graphic novel, Stone Fruit, named after a nectarine on which one of its characters chips a tooth, is not much of a book for spring. Granted, its treatment of the unfathomable silences that can often be found at the heart of a family is magnificently unvarnished; if its minimalist, indie-film tone is ever downbeat, it’s also, at moments, highly affecting. But you finish it with no hope at all that its characters will ever be able to resolve their difficulties. There is something intensely bleak at its centre: a sense, perhaps, that while blood is not always thicker than water, even happily chosen families may not be able to withstand certain kinds of emotional inheritance.
But I don’t want to put you off. Lee Lai is an Australian cartoonist who lives in Montreal; her short comics have appeared in the New Yorker. This is her first graphic novel and it impresses from the moment we first meet Bron and Ray, a couple who relish their role as wild, alternative aunties to Ray’s six-year-old niece, Nessie. In Nessie’s company, they’re at their best, the problems in their relationship made distant by her innocence and excitement. To express the sense of freedom the three of them experience whenever they’re together, Lai has a magical visual trick up her sleeve. Exploring the park, our trio turn into furry beasts, all snouts and teeth: feral creatures who only return to their human state when Nessie’s mother, Amanda, calls up, wondering what time she’ll be home.
Nessie, though, is a part-time distraction. However beloved, she cannot tether Bron to Ray, nor can she see off Bron’s worsening depression. Soon, Bron will leave Ray, returning to the Waspy Christian family she left behind when she fell for her. She wants to talk to her parents – to try somehow to get past their horror at her sexuality – because she believes that only by doing this can she ever hope to feel truly herself. A devastated Ray, having no other option open to her, now attempts to get along a little better with Amanda, who has always made her disapproval of Bron uncomfortably obvious.
The reader longs for a big thaw for both women, a defrosting that will release them into renewed happiness. But Lai is too much of a realist to tie up her story with a bow. “I don’t know what you came home looking for,” says Bron’s mother, refusing to answer difficult questions about the past. At suppertime, the talk is of church groups, not feelings. Ray makes a little more progress – at least she and Amanda can smoke together – but the two of them are hardly soulmates. How can Amanda comfort Ray for the loss of Bron when she’s still reeling from her own divorce?
Lai’s monochrome illustrations are, like her dialogue, spare and unyielding; she wants for a lightness – the occasional joke would help – that would imbue this story with a warmth it sometimes needs. But she tells her story with control and authority and it’s impossible not to admire the way she has made a dextrous narrative out of so much taciturnity and mossy sadness.
• Stone Fruit by Lee Lai is published by Fantagraphics (£29.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply