Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

Self-Portrait with Boy is an intensely powerful debut novel, one that tells an all-encompassing and all-consuming story.

A small digression: lured by the summary, I was keen to get my hands on Self-Portrait with Boy, however, once I found out that Lyon avoids using quotation marks…I became hesitant. For some silly reason, I just cannot stand reading books that do not follow traditional formatting. Still, I wanted to read this…and then I had an ‘idea’…what if I were to listen to the Audiobook instead? Turns out that was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. Narrated by Julia Whelan it took me just a day and a half to finish listening to it. I’m now actually tempted to buy a physical copy…

Lu is a young photographer stuck working in an organic grocery store and perennially short on money. When a photograph she has taken reveals to have captured a boy falling to his own death she is torn between what could finally start her career and the consequences of showcasing such a tragically private photo. Lu views this photo as her masterpiece and is determined to show it to the world. Things are even more complicated since she befriends the boy’s mother Kate. Lu’s ambitions collide with her desires: she strives for her ‘shocking’ photo to be recognised but she also wishes for a relation of sorts with Kate.
Lu’s story contains plenty of conflict: art, morality, love, ambition, selfishness. Lu scrutinises her own actions, the choices she makes in regards of the photo as well as the everyday choices she makes everyday: there is her father’s failing sight, the quick deterioration of the building in which she lives, her various jobs and her different relationships. All of this is set against a vividly rendered backdrop, one that buzzes with vitality: there are many scenes that swiftly incorporate many things at once, Lyon makes everything her focus, bringing to life Lu’s bustling city.
Lyon didn’t shy away from including the more disturbing aspect of Lu’s life. There is a particularly graphic scene including a rat nest…which was pretty intense (and possibly traumatising).
Nevertheless I was unable to skip a single moment. I found each page to deliver a both freighting and amusing realism: the characters’ conversations, Lu’s own thoughts, they are all strikingly real. Lyon perfectly captures the life of a group of diverse artists. Lyon’s narrator is a real tour de force: she is horrible and selfish but she also possesses a beautiful mind. Lu’s observations truly transpire her artistic inclinations: she talks of the light, always looks at her surroundings, relishes the small details of certain encounters.
Self-Portrait with Boy is a gut-wrenching portrait of a young artist’s struggle for recognition. It is also a story of a young woman’s day to day life: odd encounters, funny moments, tedious jobs. It is a troubling read, one that tests and pushes our own limits and understandings of ethics and morals. Lyon’s prose is effortlessly expressive and her swift style brims with creativity.
ps: be warned, this is a novel that will leave you feeling raw.

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