Olga Michael reviews Sarah Lightman’s recently published The Book of Sarah (2019), a brilliant graphic memoir about (“failed”) motherhood, family bonds, Jewishness, belonging and exclusion, trauma and survival, mental illness and healing.
Women’s autobiographical comics first emerged in the US counter-cultural underground scene with Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work (see Chute 20-27). During the turn of the twenty-first century, we have witnessed a maturation of the genre through the circulation of such texts in book form, and their re-branding as women’s graphic memoirs. Alison Bechdel, Phoebe Gloeckner and Lynda Barry are three among many brilliant female cartoonists, whose works display each artist’s negotiation of issues like problematic intergenerational family relations, parental neglect, sexual and other forms of trauma, and the survival of such traumas. With her recently published graphic memoir, The Book of Sarah (2019), Sarah Lightman, a London-based comics artist and scholar, has established herself within this continuously expanding group of brilliant women cartoonists, whose valuable work can help readers better understand distinctly female experiences of (“failed”) motherhood, belonging and exclusion, trauma and survival, and mental illness and healing.
The Book of Sarah is divided into eight chapters: “Genesis,” “Exodus,” “Bamidbar,” “Numbers,” “Leviticus,” ‘Harry’s Genesis,” “Revelations,” and “Apocryphra.” Through its rich intertextual references to the Torah, the graphic memoir displays how Sarah’s journey from childhood to adulthood and to becoming an artist and a mother is marked by her Jewish ancestors, by her own mother’s strong presence, and by her religious upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. In a two-page spread, Lightman draws her son’s shoe and the narrating voice states that as he outgrows “shoes” she “outgrow[s] friends and religious beliefs” (10-11). Emerging from a religious childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, as a more mature adult, Sarah decides to abandon Orthodox Judaism. Nevertheless, her Jewishness is core to the development both of her life and of her (graphic) life narrative. As the narrating voice describes Sarah’s paternal and maternal ancestors and their migratory journeys, a scroll in the visual register of the narrative, depicts the names of the “children of Israel when they came into Egypt” (22-23). Sarah’s sense of self and belonging are therefore introduced as deeply rooted in the archive of her family and her religion.
As she draws incomplete faces, Lightman’s narrator explains that this “is not my whole family’s story (fig.1). Just an attempt at my own. But of course, their story is woven indelibly into my own, like folktales, and bible stories, magical, impossible, and true” (24). Then, she goes on to wonder: “If I have inherited short-sightedness and a propensity to allergies, then why should I not also have inherited a self-thwarting mechanism, an unfulfilled intellectualism, and both over-controlling and over-dependent tendencies?” (24). In so doing, she points to how she is essentially an amalgam of her ancestors and how in The Book of Sarah, familial and religious pasts become conflated so as for her to be able to explain how her autobiographical subject gained and established her own voice as an artist and as a distinct member of her (religious) family.
The conflation of personal and biblical narratives is also indicated by the book’s title itself. Sarah explains that she used to read the “story of the matriarch Sarah” from the Torah, and the visual register shows the book and the page with the story she mentions inscribed in Hebrew (13). The biblical Sarah, the narrator explains, does not have her own book, like the “Book of Esther and [the] Book of Daniel,” but in telling her own life story, Lightman creates that book (15). After the description of regrets, wrong decisions, attempts to become emancipated from her family and returns to its orbit, struggles with mental illness, failed relationships, the trauma and happiness of childbearing later in her life, and the value of being an artist, towards the end of the narrative, Lightman draws a scene from the Book of Genesis (fig. 2). This scene, her own adaptation of Rembrandt’s etching Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656), depicts God’s angels, who appeared to Abraham as travellers to announce to him that his wife would soon have a son, despite her advanced age. On the side, almost unnoticeable, Sarah is standing behind a semi-closed door, looking at the gathering of the men who are talking about her own fertility and future pregnancy. The door is drawn in a darker shade and Sarah almost blends into the background, in a scene that visually captures her marginal position in Abraham’s narrative. “Sarah, Sarah, come out of the shadows,” the narrating voice urges the biblical Sarah as well as Lightman’s autobiographical subject (231). “This is your life. This is your time,” the narrator explains. As such, Lightman formulates a mirroring between the biblical and the autobiographical Sarah. By telling her own life story, she also metaphorically brings that of the biblical Sarah out of the shadows.
I have written before about the potential offered by women artists’ intertextual references to patriarchal artistic and literary canons, and I have explained that the combination of visual and verbal components allows for fruitful displays of intertextuality that complicate and enrich contemporary autobiographical narratives told via the comics medium (see Michael “Excavating,” Michael “The Other”). Lightman’s nuanced use of the Torah and her references to Sarah succeed in bringing the biblical matriarch’s narrative out of the margins at the same time as forming a matrilineage between her and the contemporary autobiographical subject. Simultaneously, they elevate the latter’s life story out of silence, through an excavation of sorts into layers of familial narratives of the Holocaust, migration, and loss.
In addition to her use of intertextuality, Lightman’s unique drawing and lettering style also presents a new version of what the comics form can be since hers is very different from conventional comic strips with distinct panels, speech/thought bubbles, and narrative captions. Rather, in the process of reading we come across what seem like individual artworks placed on the book’s pages, composing a nonlinear narrative, which is told not only through the narrator’s voice and the visual embodiment of (silent) characters, but also through objects and places, which Lightman very meticulously reproduces in her drawings. The presence of places and objects in the narrative is indeed prevalent. Lightman mentions and draws old and new family homes, a flat in which she lived for some time in the US; she visually reproduces the details of the floor in her therapists’ offices. In so doing, she underscores the auto/biographical potential of space, when it is displayed as lived and experienced by particular people, families, or communities. She talks about the death of her grandfather by zooming in on the family table she prepared afterwards. She talks about infertility by visually displaying a pack of eggs, about the happiness and the unhappiness of childbearing by repetitively depicting a glass that can be read as half-full or half-empty, and about her grandmother’s hospitalization by visually depicting the latter’s favourite biscuits. In The Book of Sarah, objects, like spaces, speak about interpersonal relationships, loss, death and life, break-ups and marriages, beloved people and distant ones. This is how Lightman’s graphic memoir offers readers the chance to reinterpret objects and spaces and to understand their auto/biographical potential and its usefulness in Sarah’s life narrative.
The Book of Sarah constitutes a valuable contribution in contemporary women’s graphic memoirs. It is an intimate graphic memoir that can potentially allow readers to understand the protagonist’s struggles at the same time as identifying parts of their own past and present experiences in her story. It is also an important feminist text that voices experiences of (“failed”) pregnancy, motherhood, familial and religious bonds, as well as mental illness, as it simultaneously presents the story of the biblical Sarah from a feminist angle, conflating past and present, as well as personal and religious narratives.
Chute, L. Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics. Columbia UP, 2010.
Lightman, Sarah. The Book of Sarah. Myriad, 2019.
Michael, Olga. “Excavating Childhood: Fairy Tales, Monsters and Abuse Survival in Lynda Barry’s What It Is.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, 2017, pp. 541-66.
Michael, Olga. “The Other Narratives of Sexual Violence in Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life and Other Stories.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, vol. 9, no. 3, 2018, pp. 229-250.
Olga Michael finished her PhD Studies in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester in 2014. Her thesis examines the representation of different forms of insidious trauma and the use of pastiche as reparation in contemporary American women’s graphic memoirs. Her research interests and publications focus primarily on contemporary women’s graphic memoirs, feminism and the negotiation of trauma. Since 2014, she has been working as a Lecturer in English Language and Literature at UCLan Cyprus, where she leads a number of literature modules.
Olga Michael is the Editor of IABA SNS’s “Crossing the Void” series.