Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir by Tom Hart, book review

This moving memoir proves that comics aren't just for kids

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The Independent Culture

The death of a child is every parent's worst nightmare. In 2011 that fear became a reality for the cartoonist Tom Hart and his wife, Leela, when their daughter Rosalie died suddenly a few weeks before her second birthday.

Rosalie Lightning is Hart's intimate tribute to his daughter's short life. A harrowing account of the unbearable weeks that followed, Hart's graphic memoir lays bare the grief and hopelessness that consumed him and his wife as they searched for meaning in the aftermath of their daughter's inexplicable death. White letters scrawled on a black page to form the question no reader ever wants to consider: "What do you do when your child dies?"

It was Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, first published in serialised form from 1980, which put the graphic memoir on the map. Chronicling his father's life as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. Maus was hailed as a masterpiece and paved the way for a generation of cartoonists to approach a broad range of subjects in their work – indeed, Hart namechecks Spiegelman in the acknowledgements section of Rosalie Lightning, offering him "inspirational thanks".

If any further proof were needed that comics are not just for kids, Rosalie Lightning is it – there isn't a masked superhero in sight. Instead, we meet Rosalie, an irrepressible little girl who delights in storybooks, bubble baths, ducks, painting, babbles enthusiastically about the "big moon" in the sky whenever she spots it and collects acorns everywhere she goes.

And we meet Tom and Leela, who, with no warning have been lumbered with unwelcome new identities – "everyone's worst-case scenario"; whose best memories have become their greatest torments, haunting them as they sleepwalk through the days, stooping to pick up acorns along the paths they used to amble down as a trio. Every day presents a sickening new trial – from paying for their daughter's cremation with a cash card, "like I'm buying a bag of bananas", to preparing for their first childless Christmas.

But amid the heartache Hart gradually begins to experience a new sense of hope, powered by his love for his daughter, finding comfort in nature, literature and music. Rosalie Lightning, as Hart has said, was once a girl, now, unfairly, a book. This profoundly moving tale of a father's eternal love is first and foremost a gift to her, but anybody who has struggled to come to terms with losing a loved one will find solace in this book.

St Martin's Press £14.99. Order for £12.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030