Alison review by Lizzy Stewart – a tale as old as the hills made new by art | Comics and graphic novels
LIzzy Stewart’s first full-length graphic novel reminds me of both the kind of novels I read when I was young (think early Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien) as well as some I’ve enjoyed more recently ( it echoes that of Tessa Hadley Clever girl). It will also appeal to those who have been moved by self-portrait, Celia Paul’s memoir of her youth as an artist and her relationship with Lucian Freud. But there is, of course, a crucial difference: Stewart uses images as well as words to tell his story, a story as old as the hills, and in a way that makes it new. It is within her power to encapsulate huge amounts of information, literal and emotional, in a single image and because of this her story, like some types of poetry, is swift even when her mood is serious, her heroine silent and blocked.
The Alison of the title is Alison Porter and she tells, an older woman looking back on her life, apparently still slightly in awe of what she’s made of it (she’s now a highly acclaimed painter). When the book begins, we are in the mid-1970s and she is an 18-year-old bride, her husband, Andrew – a good, but also rather annoying man – having helped to realize her dreams of an ordinary adult 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 talk to and nothing to do while Andrew is at work, Alison is bored and lonely. This is what drives her to enroll in a course given by Patrick Kerr, a distinguished portrait painter (his work hangs at the Tate) nearly 30 years her senior.
You can guess what happens next. Alison falls into a relationship with her very supportive new tutor – Patrick is extremely… persuasive – and shortly after, she leaves her husband and follows the great man to London, where he installs her in a very small apartment above a newsagent (he cannot live with her: he could not not working). In town, away from her family, Alison is still isolated, but now she has a new purpose, first in the form of Patrick, whom she is in love with, and later in the form of her own art. She met new people and made new friends, and the years began to flow productively, punctuated eventually by exhibitions of her paintings, each larger and more successful than the last.
Patrick is not a keeper. There are always other women. But she can’t hate him. For all his flippant cruelty, narcissism and self-obsession, he has given her, she realizes, an immeasurable gift. Ultimately, the beginnings of the person she is now can be traced, complicated as it is, back to him. Stewart handles this uneasy notion, as she does with the passage of time and the quicksands of desire, with great skill, and when it comes to Alison’s self-determination, she never crumbles. not (although I won’t say anything). And yes, every page is exquisite, which is 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?