A good graphic novel hasn't crossed my path in a while, and I don't think we've had a conversation about them on here in ages, but as it is a genre I love I was delighted when Dotter of Her Father's Eyes by Mary Talbot arrived from publisher Jonathan Cape. The book is illustrated by Mary Talbot's comic artist and illustrator husband Bryan who also features as a character in this beautifully presented part-autobiographical coming-of-age narrative.
As always it can be too easy for me to read these as fast as I used to read Judy on a Wednesday and then be on the doorstep of my friend Anne waiting to swap it for her copy of Bunty. That fast scan of words and pictures in one greedy reading feast makes me feel seven again so I applied the speed limiter in order to act my age and fully take in all the nuances here.
The narrative is an account of Mary Talbot's childhood and adolescence in the 1950s and 60s as the daughter of the eminent Joycean scholar James S. Atherton, and juxtaposed alongside is the life of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's daughter.
As an insight into life with a very pre-occupied father the book illustrates Mary's perceptions of her childhood with stark and, at times, incredibly sad clarity. Her father, shut away in his study, is short tempered and occasionally violent, lashing out at Mary when frustrations overflow. He seems to have few if any redeeming features, selfish and self-absorbed, over-bearing and controlling and hard to tell how much love, if any, he ever imparted, and all whilst Mary's mother looks on helplessly.The pictures of Mary's face and clenched fists as her father 'smacks' her for moments of disobedience...or more often because she just failed to please him make for profound 'looking' and add depth to words which could never convey such emotion alone. And the abuse, through an older Mary's eyes, becomes emotional too; compliments edged with sarcasm pierce the flimsy barrier that she had always understood to be caring.
If there are glimpses of colour in Bryan Talbot's illustrations they are evident in moments of fun such as childhood dressing up, or happiness such as books or meeting Bryan, otherwise the overall wash is a sepia effect.
Lucia Joyce's story in contrast is depicted in greyscale but also with the splashes of colour suggestive of moments of joy. Lucia's life is also at the mercy of a writing father, and though it would seem there is more evidence of love, it is of a rather erratic, off-hand variety and with the same lack of understanding that
Mary would experience thirty years later.
Lucia, a talented dancer, is desperately trying to carve out a promising career for herself whilst being constantly dragged from pillar to post by James Joyce's peripatetic life style, a few months in Paris, then London, back to Paris, then a long holiday. Eventually Lucia succumbs to the mental illness that will dog her for the rest of her life, much of it spent in clinics, under house arrest, sedated and eventually incarcerated in an institution where she will see out her days. Joyce's double standards, nowhere more evident than in his animosity towards Lucia 'waving her arms and legs about' in an unseemly manner on a public stage, when he had just surely written the most famous banned book of all time.
What emerges are parallel lives lived a generation apart but both connected by the life and writing of James Joyce, and Mary Talbot's sympathies towards Lucia's plight are much in evidence. All enough to remind me of that quote of George Eliot's
'Things which have a constant relation to the same thing have a constant relation to each other'
And Mary Talbot explores those connections with great insight.
Both her parents have since died which perhaps liberated Mary to tell her story in the way in which she has done, with great honesty and candour and no doubt some moments of real soul-searching as she relived past traumas. The good news is that this was a husband and wife collaboration, Brian seems to be the same Brian that Mary met and married all those years ago...which feels really cheery and enduring in terms of resilience, survival and long-term happiness factors.
Dotter of Her Father's Eyes has all been enough to send me back to the Graphic Novels shelf and wonder what I may have missed recently. I have the staples... Maus and Persepolis. Tamara Drewe and Cancer Vixen, a smattering of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (thank you Erika) ... but any more suggestions??