20 Books of Summer, #1: Self-Portrait With Boy

Hello from Tokyo! I’m stacking up reviews, so even though I’m still on vacation, I’m going to start posting some of them, so I’m not overwhelmed. I may take longer to reply to comments than usual, and I’m sorry I haven’t been commenting on others’ blog posts – I’m excited to read them all when I get back! I’m doing pretty well with 20 Books of Summer – four read, partway through a fifth – so here’s my first review.

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Self-Portrait With Boy, Rachel Lyon’s debut, focuses on Lu Rile, a working-class artist in her mid-twenties, living in a condemned tower block in Brooklyn’s DUMBO – Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass – district in the 1990s, before gentrification swept the area. (Lyon’s vivid depiction recalls Ivy Pochoda’s treatment of a different Brooklyn neighbourhood, Red Hook, under threat in Visitation Street.) Lu makes ends meet by working in a grocery store, but all the same, she’s constantly on the edge; costs mount up as she has to pay for her father’s cataract treatment, legal fees as her neighbours try and keep hold of their building, and materials and printing for her own photography projects. And despite Lu’s commitment to her work – for example, she takes a self-portrait every day – she’s nowhere near breaking through. But when a neighbour’s child, Max, falls to his death from the roof of the tower block, Lu accidentally creates a masterpiece; having set up her camera to capture herself leaping in front of her loft window, she also catches Max falling outside. What should she do with this photo – Self-Portrait #400?

The blurb of Self-Portrait With Boy sets this up as a choice: should Lu make the photo public or not, especially as she grows increasingly close to the dead boy’s mother, Kate? However, this novel isn’t really about that moral decision: Lu’s pretty clear from the start that she wants to show the photo, though she struggles over how to tell Kate. Instead, it’s a disturbing description of a protagonist who’s totally devoted to the task of making good art. Most of Lu’s narration is incredibly detached from the world, although, to be fair, this is heightened by her exhaustion as she takes on more and more jobs to make ends meet, and as she struggles to sleep as her repressed emotions manifest themselves as Max’s ghost tapping on her window.

One confrontation with her father feels especially brutal and truthful. When he buys her a Christmas gift of an ex-library photography book, she flicks through it:

Glossy colour photos of young green forests and beaches at sunset. Waterfalls that had been photographed on a long exposure so that their cascades looked soft and blurred as mist…

I said, Dad, do you know anything about the kind of work that I’ve been doing?… It’s not like this, I said. This isn’t art, Dad… This sort of photography is created to numb the mind. The sort of work I do, and I want to tell you this so that you know, it’s the opposite. It’s meant to unsettle the mind.

He said, It was only a dollar. You don’t like it, okay.

I said, It isn’t that I don’t like it. How can anyone not like a sunset or a fucking babbling brook?… but looking at a picture of it? Why? Why? Who opens up a book to look at a picture of a beach? People who hate their lives, The anxious and the weak. This isn’t art, it’s fucking lidocaine.

It would be easy to condemn Lu for her harshness towards her ageing, poorly-sighted father, but I felt there was another reading of this scene; Lu’s father matters to her enough that she’s willing to be open with him about what she believes, rather than cultivating her usual silence. It would be easy for her to come out with platitudes about his gift, but would that really be an honest way to conduct their relationship?

Spoilers follow [highlight to show].

When Lu realises that she is a lesbian, and that her close connection to Kate is, for her, romantic and possibly sexual, her extreme austerity throughout the bulk of this novel starts to make more sense. Lu has fully disconnected from her own sexuality, and so when she begins exploring it with a woman she meets by chance at a museum, her narrative as it has been is over. How might she have acted differently had she been in love, and aware of it, at the start of the novel? Lyon sensibly leaves this as an open question, refusing to allow Lu to fully soften even in the moving closing lines.

Spoilers end.

This is not just a book about a woman coming to terms with how and who to love, but a book about a woman who puts her creative self – not her ambition, I think that’s unfair – above everything else. Literally starving, Lu knows she won’t be able to continue making work unless something changes – so she takes her chance. What I found really objectionable about her conduct was less her determination to show the photo, and more her cowardice in not telling Kate of her plans. One could argue that Lu is not a true artist – that her best work was produced by accident – but, on the other hand, Lu wouldn’t have taken her photo if she hadn’t shown up for work on the three hundred and ninety-nine days before Self Portrait #400 appeared on her developing film. Haunting, clever and original.

Thanks to Rachel at pace, amore, libri for both recommending this novel and sending me a copy via her blog giveaway!

15 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #1: Self-Portrait With Boy

  1. Wow, this sounds so great. Usually I have to steel myself for books involving death of a child, but it sounds like it’s not really the focus… I didn’t peek at the spoilers because I wasn’t to read it myself. I also never knew what DUMBO stood for, so thanks 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ooh I didn’t think we’d get a review of this until you were back, what a pleasant surprise. I think this book is so much smarter than its blurb makes it sound, because you’re right, it’s less about the moral quandary (though ‘what would I do?’ is obviously a question the reader has to reckon with in order to fully engage) and more about the consequences of pursuing an artistic vision so ruthlessly, which imo is a far more interesting narrative than Lu debating over whether or not to show the photo for several hundred pages. Lu as a character just made such an impression on me and Lyon’s writing was so piercing, there are some passages that I remember vividly even though I read this two years ago, like the scene where Lu takes the photo of herself in the dressing room, I don’t know why but I just found that entire scene GLORIOUS.

    SPOILERS: I think the treatment of Lu’s sexuality is GENIUS – how it colors the narrative in a way that isn’t fully realized until the very end. The closing lines nearly moved me to tears for all the reasons you described – how would accepting that her love of Kate was romantic have changed the way her life developed? I also love how comparatively late in life Lu realizes she’s a lesbian because you almost never see that in literature.

    Anyway, for the millionth time, so happy you enjoyed this! It’s such a tragically underrated book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • SPOILERS SPOILERS

      Yes – totally agree, which is why I put that section in spoiler tags as I think it’s really important that the reader doesn’t know until Lu realises it herself (I always have an eye out for LGB characters in fiction and I didn’t twig!) And yes, I love that she finds out about it lat/er in life, unlike vast majority of coming out stories, which also tend to be YA – my current novel project actually has one protagonist who works out she’s a lesbian in her early thirties, so I’m v interested in this theme.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful review!
    I have been intrigued by this book since Rachel loved it but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Your review is definitely pushing me more into the direction of reading it sooner rather than later.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer, #12 and #13: Memories of the Future and The Untelling | Laura Tisdall

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