SPOILER ALERT: I do talk about some events that happen during this book. I don’t give away everything, but if you want untouched, pristine snow of new reading, then go buy the book. And stop reading reviews, you silly.
Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes explores the paths of two women: Mary Talbot and Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. Mary’s memoir alternates with sections of biography about Lucia. The two are particularly suited for each other; Mary’s father was a Joycean scholar, and Mary grew up steeped in the language and culture of Joyce. While there are remarkable parallels between the women, the stories are not exact mirrors of each other. Mary and Lucia both struggle, during the tale, with their relationships with their stodgy, angry, and abusive fathers.
Talbot’s art is well designed to aid the reader in knowing exactly when and where the action is taking place. Scenes of Mary in her young adulthood are in crisp color, while scenes of Mary’s childhood are delicately watercolored sepias with less defined panel borders. Lucia Joyce’s stories are told with a watercolored blues-and-blacks palette that nicely mirrors Mary’s childhood stories.
Compared to Mary’s childhood, Lucia’s seems almost idyllic. Mary details her distant, academic, and angry father with details that cut right to the heart. “I’m not sure when longing for his presence turned into its diametrical opposite,” says Mary, as she details a scene of her father slapping her after a failed math homework session. The sophisticated, intelligent voice of Mary-the-writer blends nicely with the innocent, honest voice of Mary-the-child. Mary also uses quotes from Joyce and others in the narration, which helps Mary’s father truly become the “cold mad feary father” of Joycean prose.
While Mary’s story begins in depression and rises to somewhat of a happy ending, Lucia’s is the opposite. She begins on a high: a frugal-but-loving childhood, an adolescence pursuing the dream of dance, and an apparently decent relationship with her father. However, her story plunges into depths of tragedy and psychological turmoil even as Mary decides to get her life together and move on.
Mary’s story does not end definitely, certainly not as definitely as Lucia’s. In a way, the “soft ending” of Mary’s story is satisfying; it highlights the sadness and ridiculousness of reality, how life doesn’t follow a nice story-like path. To an extent, Mary-the-storyteller seems wrapped up in her anger with her father more than self-examination and a desire to save herself. In some ways, however, the book suggests that these two women made different choices in their heroine’s journeys…each woman reacts to her father’s desire to infantilize and dismiss her differently. Lucia’s wild anger pushes her over the edge, while Mary’s persistence sees her through to some kind of a coherent adulthood.
In the realm of Graphic Memoirs, I find this a compelling read. It’s not as satisfying and justice-filled as Bryan Talbot’s intense fiction story about abuse, The Tale of One Bad Rat. Nor is it as nuanced and brilliant as Alison Bechdel’s Funhome. That being said, I think it has a place on the graphic novel enthusiast’s shelf, and certainly on the Joycean’s shelf and the memoirist’s shelf.
On a completely unrelated note, Mary and Bryan Talbot were adorable in the 70s. They were just the cloak-and-ankh-wearing Tolkien nerds that I would have been. Well, let’s be honest, I *was* that nerd in my early 20s. But I still would have been that nerd in the 70s. Just with more exciting hair.
Want to take a peek? Buy it at your local comic shop or online.
Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary Talbot, illus. Bryan Talbot. Dark Horse, 2012. $14.99