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Self-Portrait with BoyReview - Self-Portrait with Boy
by Rachel Lyon
Scribner, 2018
Review by Christian Perring
Feb 27th 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 9)

Set in rundown/hipster Brooklyn of the 1990s, Self-Portrait with Boy sets out a year in the life of artist Lu Rile. She lives in an illegal squat in DUMBO where the owner charges rent to artists who need large spaces for their work. While only 20 years ago, it is still a notable part of Brooklyn history when gentrification was getting going and property traders were buying and increasing rents. It was a time when trash didn't get collected so regularly, crack was on the streets, and places could become infested with rats. Interesting in its own right, it also provides a vivid backdrop to Lyon's story of a 27-year-old artist who has shut herself away in her apartment taking self-portraits with her camera. She hardly sees anyone except at work – she has a part time minimum wage job at a health food store, which she hates, but she has to pay the bills.

Lu's project at the start of the novel is a series of photographs of herself. One day she is catching images of herself nude jumping in midair and by accident she also catches through her window the image of a neighbor's nine-year-old boy Max falling to his death from the roof of their building. The boy's death of course is upsetting to everyone in the building, but through it, Lu befriends his parents, Kate and Steve. It takes Lu a while to even notice the image with her and the boy, and when she does, she is transfixed by its beauty. Yet she cannot bring herself to talk about it with them. So it becomes a secret she can't reveal.

It's here that author Lyon explores a couple of interesting and maybe related ideas. First, she becomes haunted by Max, not in a friendly way, but with menace. She cannot sleep because of the noises he makes. As her life becomes more difficult, and she needs to earn more money, she takes on other part time jobs. Her state of mind becomes ever more frazzled. Second, the reader is pushed to question Lu's first person account of her own motives. She gets a connection with an art gallery and she is extremely persistent in exploiting this to her advantage. As a narrator, she portrays herself as overwhelmed and at a loss about how to cope, but other characters react to her negatively, and see her as scheming. So we have to wonder how trustworthy she is, and whether she is ready to sacrifice others for the sake of her own career in art. Lu tells her story from the perspective of the present time, decades after this all happened, and while we don't know much about her artistic career, we do know that she survived and prospered. Maybe her haunting by Max's ghost is a revenge for the choices she makes in the name of art.

Self-Portrait with Boy is beautifully written, vividly depicting an important stage in the history of Brooklyn, and with a powerful plot. The supernatural thread of the story is managed without being spooky or silly. The art world of Manhattan at that time is lampooned a bit, but is not ridiculed. Lyon has written a gripping novel exploring some serious themes. Recommended.

 

© 2018 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring teaches in NYC.

 


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