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Trauma and solace: Detail of a page from Nicky Loutit’s “New Year’s Day Is Black” (©Nicky Loutit)

D.J. Taylor’s somewhat insensitive and inaccurate preface to New Year’s Day is Black by the artist Nicky Loutit gives us the backdrop to London’s left-wing literary elite of the 1940s and ’50s, at a time when its protagonists — including Cyril Connolly, Robert Kee and George Orwell — were making their mark. Taylor describes Nicky’s mother, Janetta, who was a part of this world, by using snide remarks from Evelyn Waugh’s letters, so reducing her to some sort of acolyte secretary. As a mother, it is true, she had her faults. But Janetta was also a clever and artistic woman and, to Nicky’s cost, the femme fatale within this milieu.

Nicky’s book is not an ordinary autobiography, memoir, or graphic cartoon novel — although that is how it seems at first. It is a shocking and original portrayal of a life laid bare through a mix of delicate drawings, beautiful watercolour wash and italic pen script.

The wonderful drawings of leading characters, the abundant self-portraiture, and the sometimes half-abstract images, combined with subtle use of paint, smudge and colour, are vital to the whole effect. In a sequence of searing episodes, the reader is introduced to Nicky as she immerses herself in the peace of North Norfolk marshland, its pine woods and empty, shingled sand shores — “where river water meets the sea” — a place of solace and inspiration to which the book is dedicated.

Within three pages we are plunged into  turmoil and trauma as her mother abandons her, with the ruthless complicity of her friends. “As the war ended my father disappeared, and my 1st stepfather appeared . . . my mother loved him, though he wanted to kill me.” The handsome, charming but angry Robert Kee, a recent prisoner of war who had become a publisher, found Nicky an obstacle in his way. And because she drove him mad he tried to strangle her.  Aged two and a half, Nicky was put in a children’s home, then sent on to various boarding schools.

The narrative has a tone of cool objectivity, refusing any attempt to elicit our sympathy. Switching backwards and forwards in time, the story zig-zags to the now married Nicky during her five years spent in an ashram in India — a set-up she exposes for the fraud it was. Back in childhood, she is led to the bedside of the dying George Orwell, and discovers moments of kindness from the second-generation Bloomsbury couple Francis and Ralph Partridge in their house, Ham Spray, in Wiltshire. Around page 212 (pages are unnumbered to maintain artistic effect) the father re-emerges, encouraged to take his ten-year-old daughter on a trip in his boat to France. The images and text which follow, depicting sexual abuse, are too painful to describe. In one drawing the words “No, No No No” flying smaller and smaller from Nicky’s brow into gullet, heart and stomach, are repeated 13 times. In Paris, she finds safety and solace through her coloured crayons in a café and later through her own paints.

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