Book Review – Barking, By Lucy Sullivan
Content warning: mental illness, suicidal thoughts, hospitalisation.
Lucy Sullivan’s debut graphic novel, Barking, follows Alix Otto, a young woman haunted by the death (and possibly the ghost?) of her friend, and by a black dog that only she can see. It opens with Alix standing on a bridge over the Thames and the dog goading her to jump, when she’s picked up by the police and quickly taken to a psychiatric ward, where most of the book is set.
The black dog as a metaphor for depression dates back at least as far as Samuel Johnson but Sullivan’s version is portrayed with unusual force and malevolence, a snarling, scribbly presence, sometimes lurking in the shadows of a scene and other times bursting out from the panel borders. The dog is also the voice of Alix’s intrusive thoughts, in speech bubbles scattered across the page, disrupting and confusing the narrative as they disrupt Alix’s thought processes.
Having a second character voice the protagonist’s interior monologue reminded me strongly of Sarah Kane’s work, particularly her play 4:48 Psychosis, and as in Kane’s work the impression is of someone under intolerable pressure, caught between the relentless haranguing of her inner voice on one side and the alienating, jargon-ridden speeches of the medical professionals on the other.
The art style is loose and scribbly, reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz at his scratchiest, or Dave McKean having a particularly bad day, and with a confidence and fluidity to the figure drawing that demonstrates Sullivan’s background as an animator and life-drawing tutor. The art is perfect for the book and inextricable from the story it’s telling, but is hard to decipher at times, and might prove a barrier to people who are new to reading comics.
Barking is presented as a graphic novel rather than a memoir, and while Sullivan has been very open about her own experiences with mental ill-health in interviews, she’s also been clear that this isn’t autobiography. Having said that, she clearly knows what she’s talking about. Some of the details – the evangelical nurse pushing Jesus as a miracle cure, for example, or the weird, elliptic conversations during group therapy sessions – chimed uncomfortably closely with my own experiences as a psychiatric in-patient.
The psychiatric ward as depicted here is a brutal and frightening place; definitely part of the problem rather than the solution. While this isn’t a universal experience of psychiatric hospitals, it’s common enough that it definitely should be part of the wider conversation about mental ill-health and its treatment. And the depiction isn’t entirely one-sided – Sullivan offers us a ray of hope by having one nurse, at least, show compassion towards Alix
This is a brilliant and challenging book about depression, but perhaps not one to read when you’re actually depressed. But if you’re feeling brave and you’re interested in the current state of the art of comics as an artform, I’d say it was necessary reading.
Barking, by Lucy Sullivan
Published by Unbound, 2020
128pp Hardback, £16.99
Available to buy from Lucy Sullivan’s website: https://lucysullivanuk.com/
If you’re currently affected by depression, contact your GP for an appointment, or call the Samaritans on 116 123 if you need to talk to someone immediately. HFEH Mind also has a list of other sources of support in the West London area: https://www.hfmind.org.uk/get-support/advice-and-information/
By Daniel Bristow-Bailey
Posted on: 21st September 2020