Lizzy Stewart’s first full-length graphic novel reminds me both of the kind of novels I read when I was young (think early Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien) as well as some I’ve loved more recently (it has echoes of Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl). It will also appeal to those who were stirred by Self-Portrait, Celia Paul’s memoir of her early life as an artist and of her relationship with Lucian Freud. But there is, of course, one crucial difference: Stewart uses pictures as well as words to tell her story, a tale that is as old as the hills, and somehow this makes it new. It is in her power to encapsulate huge amounts of information, literal and emotional, in a single image and, thanks to this, her narrative, like certain kinds of poetry, is fleet of foot even when its mood is grave, her heroine silent and stuck.
The Alison of the title is Alison Porter and she narrates, an older woman looking back on her life, seemingly still slightly amazed by what she has made of it (she is now a painter of great renown). When the book begins, it is the mid-1970s and she is an 18-year-old newlywed, her husband, Andrew – a good man, but also rather a full one – having helped make reality her dreams of an ordinary, grownup life just like the one her parents had before her. But there is a problem. Trapped in their cottage on the Dorset coast, with no one to speak to and nothing much to do while Andrew is at work, Alison is bored and lonely. It’s this that pushes her to sign up for a class taught by Patrick Kerr, a distinguished portraitist (his work hangs in the Tate) almost 30 years her senior.
You can guess what happens next. Alison falls into a relationship with her new, very encouraging tutor – Patrick is extremely… persuasive – and soon after this she leaves her husband, following the great man to London, where he sets her up in a tiny flat above a newsagent (he can’t possibly live with her: he wouldn’t be able to work). In the city, far from her family, Alison is still isolated, but she has new purpose now, first in the form of Patrick, with whom she’s infatuated, and later in the form of her own art. She meets new people, and makes new friends, and the years begin to tick by productively, punctuated eventually by exhibitions of her paintings, each one bigger and more successful than the last.
Patrick is not a keeper. There are always other women. But she cannot hate him. For all his casual cruelty, his narcissism and self-obsession, he has given her, she comes to realise, an immeasurable gift. Ultimately, the beginnings of the person she is now can be traced, in however complicated a manner, back to him. Stewart handles this uneasy notion, as she does the passing of time and the shifting sands of desire, with huge deftness, and when it comes to Alison’s self-determination, she doesn’t wimp out (though I won’t give anything away). And yes, her every page looks exquisite, which is entirely fitting, given that this is a book about an artist. Alison is Posy Simmonds meets Edward Bawden – and really, what higher praise could there be?
July 18, 2022 at 01:41PM Rachel Cooke