A Curious Feat of Description

Alison Bechdel

For Sarah Waters’s novel The Paying Guests (Riverhead, 2014), Public Books is simultaneously publishing a written review by Heather Love, “Give the People What They Want,” and an original one-panel illustration review by Alison Bechdel.




My assignment was to create a one-panel graphic review of The Paying Guests. I swiftly accepted—I was eager to read the book, and how hard could one drawing be? But in the end, making any kind of substantive commentary on a 600-page novel with one image felt pretty much impossible.

The thing that fascinates me most in all of Waters’s work is the way it immerses you, on a practically molecular level, in the experience of everyday life at a particular moment in the past. Part of how she achieves this is by writing in the style and language of that period. So I decided to do my assignment in that same spirit—I created an illustration from the book in the style of one of the great illustrators of the 1920s, Arthur William Brown.

Waters’s book is such a curious feat of description that there was very little for me to invent. My illustration is a close reading, in visual form, of both a scene from the novel, and of the novel’s stylistic techniques.




For Heather Love’s review of The Paying Guests, “Give the People What They Want,” see here.