The Book of Sarah
by Sarah Lightman
Myriad Editions, 240 pp.
Reviewed by Ariel Kahn
What would you do if you were named after a biblical character but felt that your story was not being told, that your voice was not being heard? This is the underlying impetus for the luminous Book of Sarah, an autobiographical visual narrative by Dr Sarah Lightman, artist, curator and scholar. The book is many years in the making, as it has been distilled from thousands of drawings that comprised the artist’s visual diary, which she has been keeping since the mid-nineties, when she was a student at the Slade School of Art.
Many creative artists draw on their own lives and experiences for their work. Few literally draw it, and of these few, even fewer do so with the sense of nuance and fluid grace that Sarah Lightman displays. The ways in which she gives voice to the silenced, the marginalised, the unrecognised, in order to define herself, rather than simply allow herself to be shaped by the wishes and desires of others puts this firmly in the tradition of artistic resistance, of feminist midrash, but it is not only that.
The book opens with a sort of musical prelude of key themes, and an evocation of the powerful tensions between different layers or aspects of the self. One of these is a double page spread of a child’s shoe, painted so that we can see the discrete areas of colour, the line of the brush, the edges where light and shade meet. The painting is surrounded by layers of text. “You outgrow shoes” sits at the top – a direct address to the child who wears them. “I outgrow friends and religious beliefs,” runs along the bottom of the page (p.10), a metacommentary contrasting physical and emotional/psychological transformation. The book invites us to participate in and experience this growth, sometimes painful, from child to artist, partner to parent. These states of seeing and being also exist simultaneously for the artist, and be extension for the reader. The artwork throughout is beautifully reproduced so we can see every line of pencil or paint, and so feel involved in the narrative, in the sense of purpose and observation behind each image.
Lightman is particularly adept at using domestic objects in an explosive, subversive way, that recalls for me poet T.S Eliot’s notion of the “objective correlative”, of objects embodying emotion. These objects point in multiple directions at the same time, such as the pencil sketched apple of knowledge, of first love, (p.67) that is surrounded by the blank space of dread and anxiety. The visible tentativeness of the pencil-line contrasts with its confident placing in the pictorial space.
This powerful emotional tension is enacted here in the
relationship between the drawing and the space which
surrounds it. This dynamic relationship shifts throughout
the work in a kind of visual music – so that when we get
another double page spread of a tea-service, representing
that cultural cornerstone of Britishness, we are surprised
by a lush, almost art-nouveau painted floral setting for
the pencil drawn objects (pages 114-115). “I made tea for
my grandparents in my flat. There’s a good feeling in
making things beautiful for others to enjoy. I had a new teapot for the occasion, it was a tea for them for all the teas they made for me.” This is the everyday charged with the force of ritual, an invitation by the artist to the older generation of her family into her own space, both physically and psychologically. This invitation to restore magic to the mundane, this symbolic re-enactment of the powerful meeting of generations, and of the aspects of self they represent, is also extended to the reader. The blank space often reflects anxiety, repetition, and the struggle not to be confined and defined by the mundane. It feels particularly poignant being re-read in lockdown London in 2020. There is a subtle shift as the narrative progresses, and these background spaces become filled with marks and textures, as the artist refines and defines the physical and emotional spaces around her. The “something beautiful for others to enjoy” could stand as a fitting description of the impact of her book, which is a beautiful object in itself, and lovely to hold and handle.
Lightman is adept at evoking both faces and physical places. The psychogeography of London and New York make them characters in her story, as what she looks at, what she notices and records, vivifies these iconic cities and renders them as signifiers for her personal journey, at once real and symbolic. Her pencilled childhood home “still inhabits her dreams” (p.41). This reminds me of poet Gaston Bachelard’s comment in his Poetics of Space, that the rooms we first inhabit shape our consciousness, especially if they “protect the dreamer.” Lightman’s book both depicts and recreates a therapeutic journey for the artist as a young woman as she encounters love and motherhood, and works to ensure that these do not define her.
The cognitive dissonance between what she draws and what she feels is a rich source of irony and humour in the book; “I was a religious Jewish girl thinking about falling in love, as I drew new Testament scenes” (p.73). There is a particular tenderness in her drawings of celebrated paintings and sculptures of the Madonna and Child, a frisson at following a Jewish feminist gaze responding to the ways Western art and culture have sought to define and appropriate motherhood.
These struggles for individuation and self-definition are given greater resonance by her struggles to conceive, and the dark emotional undertow that follows her into parenthood, when she is told to smile because she has beautiful stitches. The delicately drawn picture of a sleeping child acknowledges the effort that goes into the drawing itself, the struggle to retain and define space for herself; “You sleep. I can hardly move for tiredness.” (p.191) The simultaneity of joy and grief, of life and loss, are brought to vivid life by the loss of a beloved grandparent whilst dealing with new life and family, and the ways we try to come to terms grief as she cries in the bath “because you are in such pain.” There is a visual echo here of Freida Kahlo’s celebrated bath-painting, but Lightman’s watery image is an act of empathy, of tears mingling with a sense of birth and rebirth in the womblike space which she inhabits.
The profound intertextuality of her work, of the way she stitches together her influences and weaves them into her life, recall that of another brilliant comics artist, Alison Bechdel. There is a rich seam of visual and textual material with which Lightman’s work is in conversation. A presiding visual inspiration is the work of Charlotte Salomon, gifted artist and presiding deity of Jewish women’s visual autobiography. Her posthumously published work is carefully depicted, and there is a double page spread of carefully drawn covers of her literary and religious inspirations (pages 22-227). “I hear my voice amongst other women’s voices,” she writes, and makes sure that we do too.
This bravura display of creative intelligence functions as an alternative bible as the book is organised into sections evoking those of the Bible, but they have been re-ordered, re-woven to follow the trajectory of the artist finding her voice, ending hopefully and with powerful subjectivity in “Harry’s Genesis.” This is a deeply felt, deeply nourishing, engaging and articulate book about learning to see, and to be, as a person and an artist. “I’m here. It’s better,” Lightman writes, and the deft emotional chiaroscuro of her work give us the life-affirming sense that she is absolutely right. My world is enriched, is tangibly better, because The Book of Sarah is a part of it.
Dr Ariel Kahn is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Middlesex University. His debut novel Raising Sparks was a finalist in the 2018 Not the Booker Prize run by the Guardian, and voted for by readers. He is currently working on his second novel. His academic research focuses on comics and graphic novels, about which he is passionate. His most recent publication in this field is Hopeful Hybridities in Broken Mirrors: Representations of Apocalypses in Popular Culture (Routledge 2020)