book review: Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

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SELF-PORTRAIT WITH BOY by Rachel Lyon
★★★★★
Scribner, February 6, 2018

I was blown away by this book.

Self-Portrait with Boy is a ruthless examination of the cost of success for a young hopeful photographer. Lu Rile is in her late 20s, squatting in an Artists in Residence abandoned-warehouse-turned-apartment in Brooklyn which is so run down it should be condemned, working three jobs and trying to break into the competitive arts scene. When she accidentally captures in a self-portrait the image of a young boy falling to his death, the photograph turns out to be stunning, and Lu is forced to decide if she should destroy the print out of respect for the grieving family who she ends up befriending, or if she should use it to launch her career. (There’s also a supernatural element to the story, as Lu believes she is being haunted by the ghost of the boy who died – though whether this element is literal or a manifestation of Lu’s internal turmoil, I think Rachel Lyon leaves that for us to decide.)

Lu is one of the best anti-heroines I think I’ve ever read. She’s fueled by an almost ruthless ambition, but so vulnerable that I found myself sympathizing with and rooting for her, even though she never asks you to. She’s not a warm narrator and she doesn’t ask for pity, but she’s all the more honest and compelling for that fact. When she looks at her photograph she’s forced to confront the very nature of art itself and the role of the artist – is it her responsibility to spare the feelings of this boy’s family, or does she have a stronger duty to her career and the truth behind her art?

I’m actually very familiar with the Brooklyn neighborhoods – Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights – that provided this story with its setting, so that was definitely part of the appeal for me. It was fascinating to step back in time and look at Dumbo not as I know it now, but on the brink of gentrification in the early 90s. But even if you’ve never been to Dumbo, I think it’s still possible to be impressed by just how immersive this novel is. It’s such a brilliant and insular look at the New York art scene in the 90s; fans of twentieth century American art in particular I think will be entranced by this story.

There’s really only one element of this novel that didn’t work for me – the omission of quotation marks in dialogue. I can only assume that since Lu is recounting this story 20 years later, the desired effect is to imply that it’s Lu’s remembrance of characters’ dialogue, rather than verbatim quotes? But I’m still not sure that it was necessary – it seems like a rather arbitrary stylistic choice. It didn’t bother me enough to detract from my 5 star rating, but I think it’s going to be a big deterrent for some people.

But like I said, all things considered, I was blown away. I don’t think I appreciated just how hard-hitting this book was until I read the final sentence and nearly burst into tears. This whole novel was beautiful and unsettling and unique, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I’ll look forward to anything Rachel Lyon writes in the future – she’s a huge talent to look out for.

Thank you to Scribner and Rachel Lyon for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.