Book review: The Book of Sarah

An artist’s graphic and confessional biblical footnote


The Book of Sarah By Sarah Lightman

Myriad, £19.99

Sarah Lightman has built a reputation as an expert on Jewish women graphic artists, writing a PhD on the subject, curating exhibitions and lecturing around the world. Now, after many years in preparation, her own graphic novel, The Book of Sarah, has been published. But if you are expecting cartoon-like characters, speech bubbles and lots of images on every page, you will get a surprise. 

As Lightman says: “This is not a normal comic book. I draw like an artist. It is transgressive of comics.” For each page of the The Book of Sarah contains reproductions of her beautiful art works, mostly intricately realised pencil drawings as she explores her life in a highly original manner with captions underneath in a font based on her handwriting.

Early in the book, Lightman writes: “Every year during my first three years at the Slade School of Art, I would read from that week’s portion of the Torah… I would mark down my questions and comments in the margins. And then I would travel on the tube to the Slade and show my drawings of my own life story.”   

With siblings named Daniel and Esther, she questioned why both of their biblical namesakes had books named after them, but her namesake, the matriarch Sarah, did not. She was told: “You have a whole section of the Torah named after you, and the Torah is holier than the Writings of the Prophets… But still she demanded a Book of Sarah.” And this publication is the result. Most of the chapters reflect those in the Bible. Genesis tells of her family background and childhood, Exodus of her leaving London for New York, Bamidbar, the Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers, which translates as “In the desert”, deals with her return from New York after a failed relationship.  

The book is a joy to read. Lightman goes into surprisingly personal details about her life including her failed relationships and some truly terrible dates. As she writes: “My drawing enables my catharsis but it is also a stick to beat myself with.” 

Several pages are filled with drawings of plastic cups of water, filled to different levels which represent her meetings with her therapist. Under each glass are snippets of what she discussed in therapy.  When she meets her husband Charlie, she confides in her anxieties about both her wedding and her fertility.  

When her son Harry is born, she alternates between recounting her love of her new son and the drawbacks of motherhood, including a very graphic image of her Caesarean scar. The drawings that accompany her musings include family portraits in a range of styles from realist to expressionist, the homes she has lived in and other key buildings in her life, covers of books that have inspired her and objects of importance to her — for example, a beautiful drawing of lace doilies inherited from her great-great-aunt accompanied by the reflection “I am just a stitch in time in my family’s intricately woven history.”

I found the drawings of the more banal subjects perhaps the most moving —a succession of pages showing the foods she eats in moments of stress or the packet of Osem chocolate covered wafers that she bought for her dying grandmother. The book ends on a positive note with a chapter called Revelations, which has Lightman preparing to give up her autobiographical drawings for painting.

Julia Weiner is the JC’s art critic

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