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Matilda Tristram – Probably Nothing review

Touching and honest comic strip diary about facing pregnancy and chemotherapy at the same time.

Probably Nothing

The author, Matilda Tristram, was half way through pregnancy with her first child when she learned that she had cancer of the bowel. In her early thirties, she faced not only the daunting task of first-time motherhood, but also underwent chemotherapy, with no idea if she or her baby would survive.

Out of that bleak and stressful period, Tristram has created Probably Nothing, a deeply personal, witty and often amusing account of facing up to poor medical diagnoses, well-meaning friends offering quack cures and god-botherers that made the suffering and illness worse; whilst also receiving love and support from husband Tom and her family and friends that raised her spirits.

In Probably Nothing, Tristram combines her talents for animation and writing for children and has created a highly original diary, told in large format pages as a colourful comic strip with captions beneath. The deceptively simple drawings are beautiful, and add a lot to the emotional response in the reader. The pithy captions vary between funny and achingly poignant.

The book will appeal to anyone who has had cancer or has seen a loved one afflicted (which is probably the majority of over-thirties). Honest but never self-pitying, Tristram nevertheless pulls no punches in expressing her irritation in facing the same battles most cancer patients will come up against. There’s the pussy-footing around amongst friends reluctant to use the “c”-word, the barrage of unhelpful advice from those deluded into thinking they have the answers (spiritualists, new age types and religionists), and the selfishness of people in public. She also captures well the emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows as her body adjusts to the chemical ramifications of simultaneous pregnancy and chemotherapy. There are plenty of tears and gushing stories for random strangers along the way.

The narrative can feel repetitive at times, though this captures the Groundhog Day reality of cancer treatment. The cast of colourful characters is large and takes a bit of acclimatising to. Mother and husband Tom instantly spring off the page as people in their own rights, but friends are less clearly drawn and distinguished. Probably Nothing is at its best capturing the minutiae of daily life, and the author’s emotional responses to certain triggers.

The book is beautifully presented in oversized hardback format with full-colour pages throughout. The comic strip presentation creates a unique world in which it is a pleasure to visit, even when life is tough for Tristram. Probably Nothing will be a great source of comfort to first-time mothers and cancer patients, and for the lay reader is an emotional journey told in a unique style and with warmth and wit.

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