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Book Review: Roaming by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

By Ansharah Shakil, October 13 2023— 

This article contains spoilers for the graphic novel Roaming.

In the graphic novel Roaming, three Canadian girls in their first year of university visit New York City in 2009, for their spring break. Queen’s University student Zoe waits for her old friend Dani at the airport. But their reunion, which has been months in the planning, is unexpectedly upended by Dani bringing along her Montreal roommate, Fiona. 

Cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki are the novel’s award-winning and celebrated authors and drew upon their own experience of being Canadian tourists in New York. Jillian, born in Ottawa and raised in Calgary, and Mariko, who grew up in Toronto, are both coming to Calgary on Oct. 15 to attend Wordfest’s 2023 Imaginarium Festival. Their Wordfest panel focuses on Roaming, their newest collaboration, coming after 2008’s Skim and 2014’s This One Summer. Roaming is the Tamaki cousins’ first non-YA book, and it’s a sublime tribute to young female friendship filled with gorgeous artwork.

Jillian and Mariko’s collaboration is seamless, but as the old adage goes, if two’s company, three must be a crowd, and Zoe and Dani’s meticulously planned trip is made uncertain by the inclusion of Fiona, whom neither of them knows very well. Zoe handles Fiona’s unexpected appearance frankly far better than I would have in the same circumstances. But soon it’s Dani who’s feeling left out between the two — Fiona, who’s bored, beautiful and sarcastic, flirts up a storm with Zoe, dismisses doing “tourist-y” things in the city and buys more drinks and weed than souvenirs. 

Fiona’s arrival is tumultuous for Dani and Zoe’s friendship, but as the tension between the three women becomes more fraught throughout the novel, we realize that there are deeper problems with each of them. New York is a dream for Dani. The reality, of course, can never hold up. Zoe’s dissatisfaction with her school life is gradually revealed, while Fiona’s floaty, carefree behaviour is hiding a world of trouble. Each character is so painfully alive and real that they jump off the page, including the one-off wacky New Yorkers who only show up for a few pages. Are our heroines all always likable? Not necessarily, but that’s what keeps things interesting. 

The novel’s ending falls short, with a vaguely unsatisfying conclusion, but the relationships are a masterclass in subtlety, and the characters’ internal monologues are excellent, as is the unabashed representation of female sexuality. There’s dialogue that makes you want to hold your breath — “The best thing about having a body,” Zoe says, “it knows what to do. Some things it just knows.”

The real glory of the novel, though, is the artwork. The physical copy of the book is a beauty, every detail intentional and captivating, from the music note on the spine to the bold poses of Fiona on the inside of the book jacket to the small drawings of New York landmarks, butterflies and suitcases on both flaps. Every page is drawn in warm peaches and cool, silvery purples alongside stark white and scrawling black. Often there are two pages devoted simply to the illustrations, and so much is said through those illustrations without anything being said at all. 

The authors’ insight into being young and nineteen and at a tipping point in your life is unparalleled. Their understanding of their audience is precise and gentle, as is their understanding of the worlds they write about. Roaming depicts New York with not only wry realism, but the utmost sincerity and love — there’s one moment where Fiona says New Yorkers are “spoiled for culture”, and that’s why they’re both insufferable and amazing. The many references to being Canadian in an American city will delight readers from the Tamakis’ hometowns as well. Most of all the novel is fiercely certain of how it wants to portray its young characters and the awkward, magical time they are living in. 

Tickets to see Jillian and Mariko Tamaki on Oct. 15 can be found on the Wordfest website. Roaming is available in stores now.

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