Almost without exception, the gorgeous, clever short stories in Lizzy Stewart’s It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be are preoccupied with girlhood, as seen through the eyes of women who are now old enough and wise enough to understand all the stuff that was once beyond their comprehension. Several touch on place and the idea of escape, and at least one explores, quite brilliantly, how women are both seen, and not seen, out in the world. The very best of them, however, encompass both teenage boredom, the fretful ennui that we tend to mourn as adults even as we recall how we longed to escape it, and the special intensity of female friendships, particularly those that go all the way back to the awkward, geeky years before we reinvented ourselves.
If Stewart, a London-based illustrator who teaches at Goldsmiths, intended this collection of comics, her first, to be a showcase of her talents, then she should soon be deluged by fantastic commissions. She can do everything. Sometimes, she’s plangent in black and white; sometimes, she’s vivid in full colour. One minute, you look at her drawings and think of Isabel Greenberg, that great weaver of modern mythologies; the next, you find she has brought Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) or the Israeli artist Rutu Modan irresistibly to mind. But there’s a certain consistency here, too. So much goes unsaid. She is so good at capturing ellipses and difficult silences, the way people talk at cross purposes. And her way with time is incredibly deft. In one story, set at a wedding reception, two women talk for the first time in many years, the weight of which you feel in every frame. In another, a couple of young women meet up in a pub. One lives elsewhere now, having left for university. Their conversation begins with jolliness and ease, but rapidly descends into inadvertent slights and hurt.
It’s impossible to play favourites here. But if I had to choose, I have two. In Dog Walk, a pair of teenagers, with nothing to do, climb up on to the roof of a school building, where they lie listlessly in the sun waiting for “someone” (ie boys) to pitch up. It brought back to me something of my own restlessness at that age; the feeling that even sitting in a bus shelter was more interesting than being at home. In Heavy Air, the narrator looks back fondly at the brutalist postwar estate where she grew up, a shabby place whose utopian ideals were long since forgotten by the time she was born (soon, she and her family will have to move out while the council refurbishes it). The book’s opening story, it comes, courtesy of a sick fox and a dramatic storm, with two small epiphanies – and it looks so very beautiful on the page: the balconies and the trees, the buses and the big skies. I fell for it immediately, and then for all those that followed it, and I feel pretty certain that legions of other readers will do the same, this year and in many years to come.