It’s a Bryan Talbot book, so you know it will look nice!
As long-time readers of this blog know, I’m wary of coming-of-age stories, because they usually don’t connect with me too much. Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (which is published by Dark Horse and costs $14.99) has the added problem of being two coming-of-age stories in one package!
Mary M. Talbot, who wrote it, is the daughter of an eminent James Joyce scholar named James Atherton, and she tells her own story while also flipping back to Lucia Joyce’s life. In a nice coincidence, Mary is married to Bryan Talbot, who’s a damned good artist. And so we get a graphic novel out of it!
Talbot balances the two stories fairly well – her own life dominates the early part of the comic, but then Lucia begins to take center stage more and more. Talbot does this to establish her own life and her father’s credentials as a Joycean scholar, perhaps because it’s easier to relate to a childhood in 1950s/1960s Britain than a childhood in 1910s/1920s Trieste and Paris. She links the two stories through her father, who was a bit of a tyrant, and Joyce, who apparently grew more and more tyrannical as he got older. Mary subtly makes the point that she was headed the way of Lucia, who eventually went insane, but she managed to get away from the restrictive household. She also alludes to the fact that the times had changed, so it was easier for her to get away. Despite Joyce’s modernism, he was still a conservative male when it came to his daughter, and Talbot doesn’t push this idea, but it’s still there. Mary also implies that falling in love with the “right” guy – in her case, Bryan Talbot – helped her, while Lucia fell in love with Samuel Beckett, who turned out to be a bit of a tool. The parallels are interesting, because Mary implies that the two situations are similar but turn out differently through the smallest of chances. Mary and Lucia both love dance, but for Lucia, it becomes an obsession that she can’t get away from. For Talbot, it’s a fun thing to which she doesn’t want to commit completely. If she had, would she have become more like Lucia?
Bryan Talbot’s art isn’t as rich as it is in his recent work (Grandville and Alice in Sunderland), but it’s still quite good. He switches easily from the sepia-toned 1950s and 1960s to the blueish 1910s-1930s, and the color contrast helps highlight the differences in Mary’s and Lucia’s worlds – Mary lives in a drab, middle-class town, all very proper and English, while Lucia lives in Paris and moves in the highest literary circles.
Blue is a good color for Lucia’s life, because it reflects her emotional state when she begins to spiral out of control. Similarly, when Mary falls in love with Bryan, color begins to enter her life (something she wryly comments on in a nota bene). Talbot judiciously uses color in Mary’s life before he meets her, and it usually has to do with something creative – the arts bring color to Mary’s life, even if it’s just a little bit.
I don’t really like this comic, though, and I’m kind of bummed about it. The narrative(s) are rather bland – things happen, everyone moves on – and we don’t get a sense of much emotional turmoil even though both young ladies are experiencing it. Lucia’s descent into madness is glossed over very quickly, and while I think it would have been perhaps too sensationalistic to include too much of it, its speed makes it feel less important. We never get a sense of Lucia trying to break away – she is allowed to dance, but the moment her disapproving parents say she has to focus on something else, she throws a tantrum and gives in. She always returns to it, but for something that was her passion, she never fights all that hard for it. In Mary’s case, it just doesn’t seem like her life was all that awful. Yes, shit happened to her – her father yelled at her more than once, her biology teacher called her wicked and stupid – but that happens to everyone, and there’s never a sense that it stopped her from doing what she wanted when she wanted. Neither character seems to go through any emotional growth – Lucia is always the little girl desperate to appease her father, while Mary is always the quiet rebel who takes the abuse but doesn’t let it bother her. At least that’s how it felt to me. Ultimately, the point of both narratives seems to be that people in public aren’t the same as they are in private – Joyce wrote avant-garde novels but thought his daughter should be a proper woman, while everyone outside of Mary’s family loved James Atherton.
That’s fine, I guess, but so what? I never mean to be harsh when it comes to memoirs, but this is why coming-of-age stories have to offer something different. Alison Bechdel in Fun Home, for instance, not only made a secret the center of the story, but she also told the story in an interesting way. Despite the fact that Talbot switches back and forth between two time periods, nothing really distinguishes the actual story being told. Lucia’s story is somewhat interesting, but a good deal of that interest comes from the fact that she was Joyce’s daughter. It’s the same thing with Mary. As those two men remain somewhat unknowable, their impact on their daughters’ lives – which is what, I believe, Mary is going for – is lessened. James Atherton, especially, is an enigma, and so Mary’s relationship with him, which should be the emotional core of the book, feels strangely empty.
I can’t really recommend Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, unless you’re really into Bryan Talbot’s art and want to see it whenever he draws a book. It’s a comic that feels more important than it is, and seems like it should be better than it is. As with a lot of books that I really want to like, it saddens me that I don’t. But that’s the way it is, I suppose.