Alison Bechdel achieved great acclaim with Fun Home, a graphic memoir of her childhood that centred around and her relationship with her father. In this book, as the title suggests, she switches her attention to her mother.
The thing about Fun Home is that it was a neat package. Bechdel’s father died many years ago, having fallen (or thrown himself) under a truck. His story, alongside Bechdel’s childhood recollections, makes a good narrative with a logical structure.
The problem with Are You My Mother is that the story hasn’t really finished yet. Bechdel’s mother is still alive, and Bechdel becomes wracked with guilt over the writing of the book. While vignettes of her life are pushed to the surface, the lack of story soon turns into the story itself. A multitude of narratives emerge, with Bechdel’s mother’s story only earning part of the limelight.
Bechdel, perhaps inevitably, draws the focus on herself instead. She starts each chapter with a dream, which is analysed at some length. We see lengthy sessions with a string of therapists, and we witness the ups and downs of her relationships with her lovers.
She also spends a lot of time reading psychology text books, and quoting liberally from them when she finds concepts that seem to fit her circumstances. This can leave you feeling like you’re attending an illustrated psychology lecture. But despite sounding dull, Bechdel manages to keep the pace going and the book is surprisingly engaging.
This is a deep and fascinating read. It’s got an incredible complexity to it, in terms of how far it delves into Bechdel’s character. Yet it manages to maintain clarity in its presentation and style. What it lacks, in my opinion, is a resolution. Bechdel seems to acknowledge this, and has the literary skill to pull it off. From a reader’s perspective though, you can’t help but feel a little let down that Bechdel ultimately fails to provide us with the answer to her own unanswerable question.