Non­fic­tion

The Book of Sarah

  • Review
By – September 29, 2019

Sarah Light­man is one of our lead­ing lights in Jew­ish-themed comix, both as a schol­ar and a prac­ti­tion­er. Light­man is a co-founder of the Lay­deez do Comics” inter­na­tion­al forum for artists and also edi­tor of the ground­break­ing vol­ume, Graph­ic Details: Jew­ish Wom­en’s Con­fes­sion­al Comics in Essays and Inter­views, which grew out of an exhi­bi­tion that toured North Amer­i­ca. This vibrant col­lec­tion offered read­ers and edu­ca­tors unprece­dent­ed and deeply illu­mi­nat­ing glimpses into the art and life of eigh­teen inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish female artists whose work encom­pass­es a range of gen­res and styles. The Book of Sarah, which might best be described as a graph­ic auto­bi­og­ra­phy, but is in many ways a sub­ver­sion of the form, offers rich­ly tex­tured, lumi­nous and often raw and inti­mate win­dows into Lightman’s emer­gence as an artist and some­times tor­ment­ed younger self. Through­out this non­lin­ear nar­ra­tive, Light­man sit­u­ates her painstak­ing jour­ney from the Ortho­dox upbring­ing that sti­fled her auton­o­my and cre­ativ­i­ty, to her life as an inde­pen­dent artist amidst por­traits of Lon­don and New York City, as well as the fam­i­ly mem­bers and oth­er indi­vid­u­als intrin­sic to that growth.

Light­man report­ed­ly invest­ed decades cre­at­ing this work and one can sense that the out­come rep­re­sents a deep cathar­sis, enabling her to con­front deep and hard-gained inner truths. Though there is prob­a­bly no such thing as a con­ven­tion­al” graph­ic nar­ra­tive, read­ers antic­i­pat­ing a ful­ly-reveal­ing mem­oir may find them­selves a lit­tle more chal­lenged by Lightman’s some­what more elu­sive and frag­men­tary approach to her sto­ry, but they will find myr­i­ad com­pen­sato­ry rewards. In lan­guage rang­ing from spare and col­lo­qui­al to lyri­cal, the artist exam­ines years of pain and inse­cu­ri­ty. But what will most enthrall read­ers is her lumi­nous imagery, beau­ti­ful­ly ren­der­ing her inti­mate rela­tion to every­day objects, indeli­ble aspects of fam­i­ly life, reli­gion and cul­ture. Light­man is the kind of gen­er­ous artist who cel­e­brates her relat­ed­ness to oth­ers and, sub­se­quent­ly, there are mov­ing homages to the artists, writ­ers and books that inspired her along the way.

Whim­sy and pathos often inter­min­gle through­out this bil­dungsro­man, begin­ning with chap­ter head­ings evok­ing bib­li­cal books, such as Gen­e­sis which com­mem­o­rates both fam­i­ly his­to­ry and her own ear­ly sense of self­hood, or Bamid­bar (In the Desert), the orig­i­nal Hebrew title of the Book of Num­bers, which explores her return to Lon­don fol­low­ing a dis­as­trous rela­tion­ship in New York. Else­where, she recounts her halt­ing progress in ther­a­py, the joys and ambiva­lences of moth­er­hood, and deeply per­son­al rev­e­la­tions about her life as a woman and artist. All of this is accom­plished through tru­ly haunt­ing art, much of which takes up entire pages. Reflect­ing on her art and life, Light­man once observed that, I haven’t changed the world, or made a lot of mon­ey, or held an impor­tant posi­tion. But I have strug­gled, and lost, won and sur­vived, and that jour­ney mat­ters.” Any­one who has the plea­sure of spend­ing time in the com­pa­ny of her deeply absorb­ing book will like­ly agree.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

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