Edinburgh Book Festival review: Alison Bechdel

The highlight of Alison Bechdel’s Book Festival appearance was when she showed her audience some of the things that didn’t make it into her latest book, writes David Robinson

Alison Bechdel

“I don’t know why I am compelled to tell people these intimate details of my life,” graphic memoirist and lesbian icon Alison Bechdel said yesterday, “but somehow I must do it.” Why? “Maybe, as a child, I didn’t think I was being seen”.

She certainly didn’t realise she would be seen in her Vermont studio by an actual book festival audience and was pleasantly surprised to hear applause for the first time in almost two years.

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Her new memoir – The Secret to Superhuman Strength – is ostensibly about her lifelong passion for exercise, but is really about self-transcendence and creativity. But whereas her previous books, such as Fun Home (not only a Broadway musical but about to be a feature film too) had the more straightforward focus of her parents’ lives, her new subject proved altogether harder to pin down.

It would clearly be something about Buddhism, therapy, relationships, running, obsessions and a growing awareness of mortality – all with her usual light sardonic touch. No wonder, you can’t help thinking, she was stuck on it for five years. She had, she said, to throw an awful lot away before she found the spine of the book’s story.

Although her slide-show taking us through her book was enjoyable, the illustrations that never made it to the final pages – drawings from her own diary and experiments with ink-wash painting – along with her explanations of what she learnt from other writers’ cosmic epiphanies were the event’s real highlights.

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