Book Festival: Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram

Stuart Kelly reviews Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram, ahead of her appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

SUBTITLED “A diary of not-your-average nine months”, this graphic memoir is one of the most moving books I have read this year.

Towards the beginning of her pregnancy with her first child, Tristram was diagnosed with cancer. Although there was an immediate moral dilemma to confront – would terminating the pregnancy increase her own chances of survival, and even if she did decide on that course of action, would chemotherapy leave her infertile? – the book is more about the consequences of living.

Told in a grid of four by four illustrations with handwritten commentary underneath each panel, Probably Nothing is unflinching both in terms of the physical and the metaphysical. The graphic medium allows the author to be more graphic than prose alone would. There is a stark contrast between the beautiful, slightly scribbly, deliberately naive, illustrations – reminiscent of Quentin Blake – and the harsh, messy, adult reality: Tristram doesn’t spare the reader accounts of the consistency of excrement, the tedium of treatment or the emotional roller-coaster where dropping a packet of teabags can seem more unbearable than one’s own mortality.

It is not without humour, or joy: there’s a glorious panel where the heavily pregnant narrator, at a wedding party, has to endure “Dangerous bump touching. A man unwittingly rubs his face on the colostomy bag. Bit weird.” Her cadenza on health food shops – “agar agar, citronella, Tea Pig, arnica, chlorella” – is hilarious, but ends with the realisation that some of her chemo drugs are derived from mustard gas.

When James is born, there is a whole other series of anxieties and uplifting moments: “chemo ward is no place for a baby, really”. It would be a lie to say Probably Nothing was easy reading. But for every wince, there’s a wink, and one leaves it, as the author does, with a renewed sense of how big little things can be.

Matilda Tristram, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Saturday, more info

Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram, Penguin Viking, £16.99

Originally published in Scotland on Sunday

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