This winner of the 2012 Costa Award (UK) for best biography delineates the life of two women, circumstantially connected through author James Joyce. The narrator, Mary Talbot, scholar and wife of her co-author — well-known comic book creator Bryan Talbot — is the daughter of Joycean scholar James S. Atherton. The biography of the second woman, James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, is told in juxtaposition with that of Mary, and while the two never met, the connections between the two through their relationships with their fathers, societal expectations of the day, and class distinctions, render this a very powerful and engaging reading experience. The book also contains glimpses of literary and artistic celebrities shows their intermingled connections with the Joyce and Atherton families. It is a journey of discovery, mirth, tears, and realization.
Lucia Joyce’s life story of thwarted dreams and aspirations is poignant. Her passion for dance above all else was rewarded by her being committed to an insane asylum by her family. Bryan Talbot distinguishes these sequences from the more contemporary story about Mary by using a blue wash on smooth Bristol board, with illustrations resembling the Art Deco movement of the early twentieth century. The effect of these blue illustrations evokes melancholy and the growing desperation of a young female fighting for herself and her future.
Mary’s autobiography focuses on her relationship with her father and her meeting and subsequent marriage to comic book artist Bryan Talbot. For her story, Bryan has embraced a larger pallet of colour, muted shades for the more recent scenes, with flashbacks in sepia tones. These incidents include touches of spot colour which suggest, in Bryan’s words, “the way that memory works, the way some things are remembered more vividly than others; more colour appears gradually as events become more recent.” Several notes from Mary are incorporated into the telling of the storyline; these meta-textual commentaries to Bryan and the reader regard his illustrations, such as the inclusion of frilly aprons worn (or not worn) by Mary’s mother.
The book is a satisfying marriage between the two co-authors as well as between the two main foci of the tale. Highly recommended.