Memory is a good subject for a comic book artist. Visual narratives can move freely about on the page; sequential panels allow for moments of focus within a wider story, while the forward motion can afford brief glimpses back into the past. In Beetroot, Barnaby Richards’ first graphic novel, the artist evokes his own childhood memories of living in Beirut.
The title is how Richards mispronounced the name of the city when, as a six year-old in 1980, he was first told about moving there. Richards’ father, the artist and illustrator Clifford Richards, was offered work in Lebanon and the family remained there for the next couple of years, leaving at a time of increasing unrest.
The book, as its subtitle suggests, is an “unreliable memoir”, a result of how, in childhood, things we can’t understand are transformed into things we can comprehend. Beirut becomes Beetroot (the Richards’ house is brilliantly conveyed as a giant vegetable in the book); a noisy wedding celebration is reimagined like a war; while a spooky special guest on an episode of The Muppet Show becomes the source of a particularly frightening nightmare. These memories then twist and turn into stories which end up only loosely based on the truth.
As with his previous comics and illustration work, Richards never over-explains a story. Some things are just strange or left unanswered, and that’s the childhood he conveys so naturally in Beetroot; a time when things often don’t make sense, but still seem to fit into an adult world.
Across its 64 pages, the mysterious world of Beetroot opens up and moves from a modern day Richards phoning up his parents and asking them about the family’s time in the city, to drawings of his memories from the time itself.
There are lots of lovely details, too, as his toys, imaginary friends and the topography of Beirut coalesce in his mind. The result is a charming tale of an unusual childhood – and a moving portrayal of how memories shape our lives.