Monday 21 May 2012

Review: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

I always have problems writing reviews of books I really like. Making my thoughts productive and coherent, rather than just spending a whole post squealing ‘oh my gosh it was AWESOME!’ often seems an impossible task, but lately Alison Bechdel seems to be everywhere, and after reading about her and this book first on Brenna’s blog, and then in the Saturday Times Review, I thought it was probably time to take the hint and get my act together.

I am a relative newcomer to the world of the graphic memoir – I never would have discovered Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s first book, if not for stumbling upon Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi in the library one day (I’m not going to talk about it again, because you can see how the two link together here). Fun Home, primarily about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, was published in 2006, and I was writing my review of it when I found out about Are You My Mother? which is primarily about Bechdel’s relationship with her mother.  

While Fun Home mostly focused on Alison Bechdel as a child and teenager and her relationship with her father growing up, Are You My Mother? is much more focused on her adult life. Although she uses scenes from her childhood throughout, she looks at them from a more adult angle; the major focus is on her exploration of her relationship with her mother during her therapy sessions, and she uses childhood incidents to illustrate this journey. In my review of Fun Home I said that it felt to me like Alison’s mother had given up on her own interests and personality the minute she got married. In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel talks about how her mother has recently begun writing poetry again, having stopped for the entire period of her marriage. At one point one of her psychologists says that it doesn’t seem like there was room in Alison’s family for more than one genius. The genius had to be her father, so both her mother and herself subdued their personalities to his benefit. Her mother as portrayed after the death of her father seems to be a much less angry more creative and relaxed kind of person.

I will just add at this point that if you are a first time Bechdel reader, it’s probably best to start with Fun Home, as Are You My Mother? does tend to assume that you will have read it.

The novel has a lot of other references running through it. There is extensive reference to Virginia Woolf, and I think this the point at which I admit that the only one of Woolf’s novels I have actually finished, To the Lighthouse, which is referenced comprehensively throughout the novel, I really disliked. Despite this, she is a writer I really want to like, and Bechdel’s comparisons are articulate and make a lot of sense. While I’m coming clean, I may as well just admit that I really liked the literary air that the Woolf references gave the novel. It may be snobby or superficial or whatever of me, but I enjoy books which make me feel smarter, and this one did. Woolf is a writer who has obviously had a lot of influence over Bechdel, and who also had problems dealing with her relationships with her parents. She was also a fairly psychological writer, in terms of wanting to understand the mental processes of her characters, and the book really centres around psychology and the understanding which can be created by it. It is divided into chapters, into each of which is placed a dream that Bechdel has had at different points in the writing of her two memoirs. As well as being a journey to understanding her relationship with her mother, the book is also the journey towards understanding herself. The other important characters besides her mother are her two therapists, and it is through them, and through frequent references to the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, that Alison seems to come to understand her parents and her own relationship with them on a much deeper level.

If I could draw I would want to be a graphic novelist. I love the medium, and not just because it’s pretty (which it is), but because it’s so powerful. While the conventional novelist is limited to what they can say in words (and I know that for many writers this is a freedom rather than a limitation, but you know what I mean), the graphic novelist has so much else at their disposal. For example, Bechdel’s references to psychoanalysis would probably have gone totally over my head in a conventional novel, but because they were illustrated it made the concepts much easier to engage with. Also just the use of colours can be so striking and convey so much. Throughout Are You My Mother? Bechdel uses very muted tones – mostly shades of black and white with red, which makes the story seem much more subdued. It also means that although the artwork is brilliant, you don’t get so distracted by it that it detracts from the story, which is good as I am a very easily distracted type of person.

I feel a bit that I’ve been distracted into being more analytical about Are You My Mother? than I initially wanted to be. Although there is a lot in the novel just waiting to be analysed, I reacted to the book emotionally rather than analytically. I just really enjoyed learning about Bechdel’s life and her family. Other people’s lives have always fascinated me it was what originally made me want to be a writer when I was little, and Alison Bechdel’s life is definitely an interesting one. Yes, Are You My Mother? wasn’t an easy read, but it was a really rewarding one. I finished it feeling like I’d learned a lot, not just about the author and her life, but about literature, psychology, and the graphic medium itself.

A copy of Are You My Mother? was very generously provided to me by the amazing publishers, Jonathan Cape.

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