CW: This review contains mentions of sexual assault. After the Ink Dries contains the following topics: Sexual assault, harsh language, suicidal ideation and suicide.
“Does a devastating event require a certain definition for it to be considered world-altering to the person it happened to?”– Cassie Gustafson; After the Ink Dries
Stories about sexual assault are difficult to read. Real survivors of sexual assault are forced to live with the mental and physical repercussions of the incidents for the rest of their lives. Those who share their stories and those who never find the voice to air personal secrets for public scrutiny are both survivors deserving of love, care, and understanding.
Fictional novels discussing mental health or assault issues of women help offer those silenced a voice. Writers like Laurie Halse Anderson have been educating readers with novels about a variety of issues women face. In 2019, Anderson wrote about her own experience with sexual assault in her harrowing poetic memoir, Shout. Most significantly, her novel turned movie Speak tells the story of a teenager who survived a rape, and the aftermath of coping with the horrifying assault while facing ridicule by her school peers.
Enter Cassie Gustafson’s debut 2021 novel, After the Ink Dries. Comic creator Emma Vieceli illustrates 16 pages in Gustafson’s book in sequential art style. After the Ink Dries feels influenced by Anderson’s Speak, but takes a different approach to presenting the narrative. Gustafson employs a dual POV narrative — and one of these speakers is a male assaulter.
In After the Ink Dries, sixteen-year-old Erica Walker wakes up half-naked on a strange bed, hungover and covered in Sharpie. Her underwear and half her clothes are missing. One beloved black boot is missing. Observing herself, she comes to a gut-punching realization: A group of boys at the house party the night before wrote messages — and their names — all over her body. Erica escapes the house still full of teenage boys, memories blurring as she drives herself back home. All she remembers is the thrill she felt the day before when her crush, Thomas, hung out with her at the party that night. Unfortunately, Thomas was also present in the house with the other boys. Erica can’t find Thomas’s name before she scrubs the Sharpie and derogatory slurs from her skin in the shower. Still, she is left to wonder: Was she raped? And was Thomas, her music-loving, sweet, lacrosse-playing crush, involved in the assault?
Before the assault, Erica had been an aspiring webcomic artist. She created an empowered female superhero as an alter ego named Erica Strange, assisted by her bat sidekick Sparky. Privately, she used art and writing as a personal diary on a hidden webpage. As the suspense builds and Erica begins fitting missing pieces of the night together, Erica Strange’s story parallels the thematic tension occurring in Erica’s real life. Viecelli excels in pacing the graphic novel scenes through analogous panel work and character designs. Gustafson’s idea to include visuals pays off in dividends. Through Viecelli’s always stellar art, readers glean further insights into Erica’s personality and thought process. We see Erica how she is perceived, how she thinks she is perceived, and how she wishes she was perceived with the inclusion of Erica Strange illustrations. Erica tries to cope with the trauma of her assault, and the art charts her emotional route.
By giving Thomas his own chapters and characterization, Gustafson dispenses a voice to an abuser. Now, with Thomas, his part in Erica’s bodily marking and possible assault is unclear. Alcohol and drunkenness skews everyone’s recollection of that Night. Thomas is portrayed as a “good guy.” He faces emotional abuse from his lawyer father about his music career, in turn only perpetuating Thomas’s drive to succeed. Throughout the book, Erica and Thomas remember the highs involved in their blossoming relationship prior to the Night. Thomas finds solace in writing lyrics, making music, and giving Erica tokens of his affection. I believe Gustafson’s point in writing Thomas’s POV is this: Thomas shows how anyone, any male, regardless of their character, is capable of sexual assault. Gustafson shows how Thomas grapples with guilt and uncertainty, not wanting to face the idea that, yes, he had something to do with Erica’s harassment. He convinces himself of his innocence because he could never have anything to do with something so vile.
Gustafson deconstructs toxic masculinity and victim shaming in Thomas’s chapters blisteringly. Yet, Thomas still feels somewhat underdeveloped, with his short chapters cutting into Erica’s narrative at a few odd times. This is my one criticism of the book, but the Thomas chapters are important.
After the Ink Dries combines dual first-person-point-of-views, prose, poetry, and illustrations, to detail Erica’s heartbreaking story. I’ve been reading Laurie Halse Anderson novels since high school, and heavy topical books are stories I feel compelled to read. I strive to gain a deeper understanding about mental illness, sexual assault, and other harsh topics I may or may not have experienced myself. After the Ink Dries will definitely trigger readers. Thus, this book should be read with caution.
Personally, I read Gustafson’s novel in one sitting. She possesses an innate ability in her writing. Through experimental writing styles and comic pages, Gustafson provides an engaging, authentic voice to survivors of sexual assault. Verisimilitude abounds in Gustafson’s detailed prose.
I don’t usually “rate” books, but if I had to, After the Ink Dries receives and deserves 5 full stars. My attention was stalwart until the final page. I can’t wait to read Cassie Gustafson’s next novel releasing in 2022, The Secrets We Keep. Confront the horrors of real issues women endure by picking up a copy of After the Ink Dries.