Book Review

dotterBiographile, March 21 2013.

Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse, 89pp, $14.99

The intensely inventive graphic memoir Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes takes its title from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and its inspiration from Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. The story of Lucia is interwoven with that of the author, Mary M. Talbot, and her father, a prominent Joyce scholar. Through this hybrid structure, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes explores women’s struggles to balance creativity and domesticity, the impact of domineering fathers on headstrong female children, and the addictive refuge offered by art. These themes are brought to life through another kind of hybridity – that of words and pictures, and the collaboration between Mary, the writer, and her husband, Bryan, the artist.

The story opens with a flashback and a moment of recognition across generations, as present-day Mary, a middle-aged literary scholar, comes across an old ID card of her father’s in a drawer and recalls another fragment from Joyce: “my cold mad feary father.” The full-color present-day opening gives way to a sepia-toned past, out of which spring crimson flashes: a hair ribbon or a blood-smeared newborn, as bright and unpredictable as a memory. The language can be equally striking, packing a whole cultural history into a single frame, as when a stern-faced nurse announces to Mary, going into labor for the first time: “Come on, sunshine. Shave and enema time.”

The grayish past depicts Mary Talbot’s upbringing in northern England as the only daughter of teachers in a working-class neighborhood. The noisy presence and sudden departure of her four much older brothers leaves young Mary dislocated and alone, the only child now present to absorb her father’s rages. The insistent tap tap tap across a closed door, which signals her father’s absorption in his work, is like a ticking grenade, until the door is flung open to reveal a roaring face, and SLAM and SMACK SMACK SMACK burst across the image. Like Lucia Joyce, Mary learns early on that her father’s work means that his moods and outbursts must be quietly tolerated – the more so because a daughter should, in the eyes of both fathers, be docile, obedient, and invisible.

Growing up around her father’s study of Joyce didn’t just make Mary aware of the realities of the writing life and lodge enigmatic phrases in her memory. It also meant that she was primed to notice the overlaps between her own life and that of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, born in 1907 in Trieste to penniless, peripatetic parents with the same names as Mary’s own: James and Nora. Lucia’s tragic story is illustrated in bold washes of black and blue, her thick dark halo of hair contrasting with Mary’s paler outline. In Paris as a young girl, Lucia discovers a talent for ballet, but her efforts to forge a career on stage or as a teacher are constantly interrupted by the disapproval and rival demands of her family. Set pieces that show Lucia’s enraptured discovery of dance, her figure leaping joyously across the page, give way gradually to scenes of rage between the girl and her parents, and eventually to nightmarish images of her imprisonment in the first of many asylums.

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is an unusually intimate example of artistic collaboration, as shown through affectionate footnotes in which Mary corrects Bryan’s impression of her past (“My mother would never have been caught dead in a frilly apron”). Sheepish, romantic Bryan, whom Mary married when she fell pregnant in her teens, is a character in the book, resplendent in flowing hair and bell-bottoms. The collaboration between his drawings and Mary’s words allows the reader to travel effortlessly back and forth through the side streets of Wigan and literary Paris in the 1920s, and to discover connections across time, space, and experience. This moving story, funny and shocking by turns, is a wonderful example of how the boundaries and expectations of both biography and memoir can be pushed.

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