Review by Iestyn Pettigrew
By Lucy Sullivan
Published by Unbound
The Book: Alix Otto is having a very bad day. Easily her worst so far. A year since they fished her friend’s body from the river, she finds herself hounded, haunted and driven to the brink.
Caught in a situation she can’t explain, Alix is handed over to the professionals and sectioned, left alone in a labyrinthine system with her delusions running wild…
Barking is a tale of grief, madness and the ghosts that haunt us.
The Review: Barking is the story of a woman whose breaking heart also breaks her mind. Death cracked her reality, making the black dog her new shadow in life. It is a harrowing book. Bleak and painful, offering no easy solutions and little in the way of kindness shown throughout.
At this time of lockdown, it was affecting in odd ways.
The most emotionally charged scene for me was when the main character, Alix, walked through an underpass. It captured the scene so perfectly I was suddenly struck by the reality of being locked in for months now.
Similarly, that sense of an altered reality felt uncomfortably close, like a shadow casting over me, an itch scratching at the back of my head throughout.
You are not going to walk away from reading Barking with the sense that all’s well and good with the world. You are going to walk in someone else’s footstep for a time though. For me, there are times that it’s a walk uncomfortably close to my own path. I can tell you that there are moments where it feels very much like reality is on the page, even when that reality is genuinely all in the mind.
Barking is a bravura work. A work centred wholly on emotion and the depiction of personal experience, that swims in black, mental and physical. Scratched onto paper; sometimes kinetic and neurotic, sometimes fluid and loose and occasionally still and filled with captured life and place.
It’s hard reading, mentally, but easy to follow. It’s no simple drama; it is a gothic horror drenched in sturm und drang, the melodrama turned up loud.
In terms of story, it starts with Alix fully immersed in a psychotic episode, being chased by the police. She is sectioned and admitted to a hospital for treatment, where details of what led to her breakdown come out as Alix slowly walks back to reality.
On the surface, Barking is a simple story of breaking and climbing from the wreckage. As well, though, it is a highly structured and carefully put forward work of literature that is neither linear nor straightforward. It drops you into Alix’s reality straight away and plays one little game with plot.
And yet, the real heart is not the plot, nor the skills, it’s the story as experienced, the altered reality that you’re dropped into. A first-person narrative constructed as a first-person reality. Visually building delirium in a way that first-person prose never could.
To slip back to prosaic for a second – this is a work where it’s got so much going on you can almost never know what to talk about. I could just list the amount of moments where the drawings are beautiful, the images reflect each other structurally or the textures just look totally incredible. I could detail story moments that pulled me up and hit close to home, but that would never give a flavour of the whole experience.
So, I’m going to do something a bit looser here – different ways to think around this book.
The river runs through as an itchy line of darkness
In literary studies the use of themes, similes and metaphor are very important. Often what marks the literary worth is the quality of language, the intelligent use of simile, and how it helps highlight themes and character traits. Maintaining consistency of subject can reinforce your major and minor themes. It is similar in music as well as film. Characters will have the same tune or the same framing to create a consistency that allows the creator to trigger reactions and connections that build subconsciously within a work. Leitmotif, in other words.
Lucy Sullivan runs the River Thames through the work constantly, the lines of the drawings hark back to the lines of the dark waters. The river is both the site where reality fractured and the altered reality that Alix treads through every day. She can’t help walking through it, dripping and at points almost drowning in it.
Whether it’s hanging over her head or rushing round her ankles, the tow of the dark tides is as constant a companion as the black dog belittling her.
And really, that scratching active line is the major leitmotif at work, it holds up players as puppets, it drags bodies around and down and curls them into balls. The free, loose movements and their frantic pace fluid along the width of the page are suddenly dragged upward and tied together in the cramped environs of the hospital.
The lines scratch in and out of the narrative darkening and lifting with Alix’s own distance from reality.
Staring reality in the face
Lucy communicates a lot of what happens through her art, whether that’s the chaos in the mind or the emotional state of her characters. The way Alix holds her hands to her chest and peeks round corners that aren’t there tells you all you need to know about her mental state and how fragile she feels at that time.
Her environs blur off into lines of black so that you know they just aren’t reaching her, reality is just floating out of reach. What strikes hardest though, for me at least, are those moment where detailed sketches of real places are included. There’s something about the nature and approach of those drawings that’s so rich that it interrupts the darkness and identifies itself as real reality, the world truly impinging on Alix’s mind. It’s a strong metaphor and a simple method of communicating an incredibly complex concept.
They are also very beautiful images that you could happily look at for a long time, so they also provide much needed breathing space in a difficult read.
Leaning on genre to create form
Whilst reading and re-reading Barking for this review, a couple of things popped up that struck me as very relevant to this graphic novel and how Lucy handles the story.
The latter was this blog post by author and literary critic M John Harrison…
“For maybe five decades, maybe more, I didn’t want my life to be what it was. It was perfectly ordinary, but I didn’t want to be in it. Writing and climbing were escape routes; I developed a bad memory to deal with the rest. Only now, after I’ve spent a few years in a life I want, do I see what an odd admission that is to make. People seem quite horrified by it; I don’t want to live among people who aren’t. How do you write about a life like that, legacy of your own poor management of childhood & adolescence, except veiled in concepts such as ‘haunting’, ‘navigation failure’ or, ‘behaviour after a disaster’? I wouldn’t know where to begin. Living is the endless discovery that you’re weirder than you thought, & you’ll never retrieve any of it except via the metaphors you’ve had all along. That seems to have been one of the advantages of genre fiction for me.”
A great way of talking about where genre transcends its own limits and becomes literature where tropes and ideas become a way of making the normal seem strange so we can more easily examine it.
Before that, on International Women’s Day, there was a thread on Frankenstein and Mary Shelley that discussed the backstory of its creation, with many comments chimed in that she had created a whole new genre of fiction from that one novel. Now you can argue the case for or against that, and I would say what she did was build upon the existing structure of gothic novels and make that her own. What made it her own was that she had something to say and took a form and structure that helped get her point across whilst adding what she needed, where she needed it to keep to the path of personal truth.
You could also argue for it being proto surrealism; convincingly and likewise, you could say it leans heavily into symbolism or romantic poetry. Whatever you want to take from a discussion of the structure of that story, the reality is, what drives it is not clever genre tropes, no inversion of expectation, what drives it is the very human drama it describes and plays out. However much lightning and drama it blows at you, at the heart you care because those characters exist as real emotional beings that speak truthfully about someone’s feelings or experience and you engage with those and that drives your interest.
Barking certainly shares themes with Frankenstein, with its questioning of who or what is a monster and the worth of science. But more importantly, it deals with the humanising of the monster, of building a portrait of the world experienced by that monster to drive an axe through accepted norms with the sharp blade of humanism.
Barking is not setting fire to genre and making something new. What it’s doing is building a work with a frame of genre and in reality, it doesn’t lean into those tropes in any meaningful sense.
What I mean by this is that some may see the haunting in this novel as a ghostly experience, the tarot reading as a supernatural signifier. What I experienced when I read it felt utterly divorced from trope and genre style. You’re not seeing someone writing a spooky or scary story for the sake of shocks, it’s an affecting method of portraying the experience of Alix, a way of putting that experience out there for you to go through and experience yourself.
The genre elements are almost like a sugar coating for those who don’t want to deal with the idea that this experience is a reality, the reality of Alix. It cushions the blow for those unable to accept altered reality is still reality for those in it.
By which I mean, it seems a genre story but it’s not using supernatural elements for terror, but to make explicit the hidden experiences of the mind. It is a work of surrealism in the true sense. Surrealisms aim was, according to leader André Breton, to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”, or surreality. That, for me, is clearly what Barking both aims to do and delivers with great élan.
You’re always talking nonsense
Oddly, in comics, particularly literary comics, the use of lettering and ‘sound effects’ is rarely used to convey much either psychological or audible experience. There are few works that aim to make use of integrating words in design and layout, at least with western traditions. The two series that took these techniques and ran with them to astounding effect both appeared in the 1980s and we’ve rarely seen any experiments drawing upon either Cerebus or American Flagg.
In fact, with the consigning of thought balloons to the ‘childish’ era of comics, psychological insight has come to be delivered through literary dialogues that read more like journal entries than experienced existence. Distinctly purple prose revealing no personality or emotion.
Lucy digs heavily into the opportunity that words in comics can deliver, sometimes drowning the scene in the negative aggressive self-hating screed constantly playing in Alix’s head. A screed at point almost completely unintelligible, sometimes rolling along in the background and sometime on point, ripping into her in the moment.
It’s an odd thing to call a comic creator brave for using one of the basic tools within their arsenal, but equally, considering how frowned upon the technique has become, it shows a commitment to delivering her message with all of the powers available to her to make it work.
Barking is a big work. A work that roars with power and rage in the hope of making people feel the terror experienced by many encountering the mental health system and societies reactions to those in the grip of mental health issues.
• BARKING by Lucy Sullivan is available now from all good bookshops
LUCY SULLIVAN ONLINE
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