Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram

18th Jun 2015

Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram
An evocative, honest and humorous visual diary about being diagnosed with cancer while pregnant.

Matilda Tristram is a children’s writer, but her début graphic novel, published by Penguin’s Viking imprint, is definitely aimed at a more adult market, despite the deceptively cute drawings.

The book’s sub-heading – ‘A diary of not-your-average nine months’ – is a flippantly accurate description of Tristram’s experience of being diagnosed with cancer when pregnant with her first child.

The book opens with the revelation that Tristram and her baby are both now doing fine, so the reader does not have to suffer the fear of the unknown that she herself went through. This is not about spoilers or story arcs, it’s a real-life account of her experiences, right down to the minute details.

Early in her pregnancy, Tristram was diagnosed with stage-three bowel cancer. This caused a dilemma of life-changing proportions: starting chemotherapy would risk foetal damage, waiting until after the birth would risk the cancer spreading, terminating the pregnancy before starting chemotherapy would risk infertility and inevitably cause huge distress to someone wanting to bring a baby to full term.

She chose to keep the baby and start chemotherapy immediately, hoping it would not affect the foetus.

What follows is a diary of the experience of going through chemo (or ‘treatment’ as she prefers to call it) while dealing with the usual issues of pregnancy. Naturally this is compounded by an anxiety that the baby might not survive, or that she won’t live to know him.

The fact that the diary was created during the nine-month period gives it a sense of immediacy and creates an affinity with Tristram’s experiences.

Tristram illustrates her fears with humour and honesty, never coming across as a martyr.

Tristram illustrates her fears with humour and honesty; never coming across as a martyr. She contrasts doing normal work-related things with looking at lacy colostomy bag covers on the internet. When she loses her body hair, she jokes about how she is no longer fighting the patriarchy.

Her closest allies are depicted positively, especially her mum and her partner Tom. She is also pleased with her treatment on the NHS, and grateful that she is being treated for free.

Pettiness begins to annoy her – people trying to one-up each other in conversation, healthy pregnant women complaining about normal healthy pregnancies, a young woman facing paralysing indecision about which croissant to buy.

The artwork is sketchy and unaffected in the manner of children’s book illustrations (unsurprisingly, given Tristram’s background). A colourful watercolour wash over the top adds an extra layer of charm to the drawings. There is a  feeling of momentum and liveliness to them.

The opportunity to read Tristram’s thoughts about what she does and doesn’t want to talk about could also provide a useful resource to friends and relatives of cancer patients. No doubt everyone copes in different ways, but it would nevertheless prove an illuminating read for those affected by similar issues.

Probably Nothing is a tale of muddling through unknown worlds, some downright terrifying and others exciting and full of possibility. It’s life-affirming and brave while also being funny and lighthearted. An altogether impressive feat.