Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Bride's Story: I'd marry her

Elsewhere: If you're curious as to what choices I submitted to The Hooded Utilitarian's Best Comics Poll, they can be seen here. Check the comments there for some thoughts from me about those choices. That whole affair has been a really fun exercise; I love seeing all the stuff that people voted for.

One link: I really liked this comic about Nirvana's Nevermind by Jonathan Bennett.

A Bride's Story, volume 1
By Kaoru Mori

One wouldn't necessarily expect a story about an arranged marriage to be a showcase for a strong female character (no, not one of those Strong Female Characters), but that's exactly what Kaoru Mori's latest manga series is. It follows Amir, a young woman living in central Asia in the nineteenth century, as she adjusts to her new life following her marriage into a neighboring clan of her family's. Mori quickly establishes her as spunky and competent in household duties, and before long we are marveling at how well she handles her strange situation, both as an outsider and as a twenty year old married to someone eight years her junior. While the reason for her late marriage (which would normally have come several years earlier, the better to start a family as young as possible) has yet to be revealed, it provides another level of interest, as both she and Karluk, her young husband, are still figuring out how their relationship works.

Maybe it's her impulsive, take-charge nature that made Amir a poor bridal candidate, but that aspect of her personality, along with the joy that she takes in life, that makes her absolutely enchanting to readers. In the first chapter, the idea of cooking her family's traditional rabbit soup leads her to grab her bow and rush out to do some hunting, and later, when she and Karluk take a trip to meet some of his nomadic relatives, she excitedly munches on some found pomegranates and demonstrates skill at herding sheep, all in a way that makes the reader marvel at her along with her husband. One can see why people would want her to be a part of their family.

Readers will love to spend time with her, but Mori has fleshed out far more of this setting than just Amir's character. She fills the story with detail upon detail of the era, lingering lovingly on clothing, household decorations, food, animals, and social interactions. It all seems to be very well-researched, but comes from a genuine fascination with the time and place, a passion that is beautifully communicated to the reader. In fact, that attention to detail provides what might be the most exhilarating sequence in the volume, in which one of the younger members of the family becomes obsessed with the work of a decorative woodcarver, providing the opportunity for page upon page of panels filled with intricate woodwork, both finished and in progress, with an emphasis on the tactile nature of the carvings and the work that goes into making them:

In a book filled with brisk-moving family drama, it's surprising that the most exciting thing is an old man with a hammer and chisel, but that's a testament to Mori's skill, especially in conveying her enthusiasm to the reader.

That's far from the extent of the appeal, however; the family dynamics that Mori establishes are really interesting, with conflicts and complications both light (a disobedient child) and heavy (a life-threatening illness). As of the end of this first volume, the big continuing plot involves Amir's family deciding they made a mistake in marrying her to Karluk and choosing to take her back, which should lead to some big moments in the next installment, but for now, we mostly get to watch as she continues to settle in to her new life. And that's fine; as satisfying as big, dramatic confrontations can be (this volume sees a good one, when the family's grandmother, who entered the family in a similar manner to Amir, chases off the interlopers who intend to reclaim their bride), the real pleasure of this series is in the small details, the interactions between brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, the conversations over the dinner table, the intricate detail of the clothing and wall hangings, the emotion so plain on people's faces. Mori handles all of this so well that one is content to just bask in the world she has (re-)created here. While life's complications, as ever, will have to intrude, any time spent among these pages is a true pleasure.