LIzzy Stewart’s first full-length graphic novel reminds me of both the type of novels I read when I was young (think early Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien) and some I read when I was younger loved time (it’s reminiscent of Tessa Hadley’s Smart girl). It will also appeal to those who have been touched by self portrait, Celia Paul’s recollections of her early life as an artist and her relationship with Lucian Freud. But there’s a key difference, of course: Stewart uses images and words to tell her story, a story as old as the hills, and somehow it makes it new. It is in her power to condense vast amounts of information, both literal and emotional, into a single image, and thanks to this, like certain types of poetry, her narrative is light-footed even when her mood is serious, her heroine silent and stuck.
The Alison of the title is Alison Porter and she is the narrator, an elderly woman who looks back on her life, still seemingly amazed at what she has made of it (she is now a painter of great renown). As the book begins, we’re writing the mid-1970s, and she’s 18, newly married, and her husband Andrew – a good man, but also quite a full one – has helped her dreams of an ordinary, adult life come true just like the ones her parents had before her. But there is a problem. Trapped in her cottage on the Dorset coast with no one to talk to and little to do while Andrew is at work, Alison is bored and lonely. This prompts her to enroll in a course with Patrick Kerr, a respected portrait painter (his work is in the Tate), almost 30 years her senior.
You can guess what happens next. Alison ends up in a relationship with her new tutor, very encouraging – Patrick is extremely… convincing – and soon afterwards she leaves her husband and follows the big man to London, where he puts her up in a tiny flat above a newsagent (he can’t possibly live with her: he couldn’t work). In town, far from her family, Alison is still isolated, but she now has a new purpose, first in the form of Patrick, who she is in love with, and later in the form of her own art. She meets new people and makes new friends, and the years begin to pass productively, eventually punctuated by exhibitions of her paintings, each larger and more successful than the one before.
Patrick is not a goalkeeper. There are always other women. But she can’t hate him. For all his casual cruelty, narcissism, and self-obsession, she realizes he has given her an immeasurable gift. After all, the beginnings of the person she is now, however complicated, can be traced back to him. Stewart handles this uncomfortable notion with great adeptness, as she navigates the passage of time and the shifting sands of desire, and when it comes to Alison’s self-determination she doesn’t evade (though I won’t reveal anything). . And yes, every side of her looks exquisite, which is entirely fitting considering this is a book about an artist. Alison is Posy Simmonds meets Edward Bawden – and really, what higher praise could there be?