Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: A Bride's Story, vols. 1-5 by Kaoru Mori

Cover art for book one of A Bride's Story, featuring a young Central Asian woman wearing a black and red outfit. Her arms are spread wide as if she's dancing forward.
A BRIDE’S STORY is Kaori Mori's follow up to EMMA, her popular manga about a maid who falls in love with a wealthy young gentleman. With one well-regarded Victorian series under her belt, a body might expect Mori to continue exploring the era in future work, and she sort of does--except A BRIDE'S STORY takes place in Central Asia, presumably a couple of decades before EMMA. The initial focus rests on Amir, an older bride of twenty years, who has just entered the home of her twelve-year-old groom, Karluk. As the pair settles into their life together, the story branches out to explore marital relationships in other communities along the Silk Road.

Friends, I fear I fell into an age-old trap when I first read A BRIDE'S STORY a couple of years back: I expected it to be EMMA with a different setting. While the two stories do share some similarities, most notably Mori's attention to detail in both the art and the relationships, A BRIDE'S STORY approaches the theme of love and marriage from the opposite direction.

In EMMA, the two leads fall in love and must search for a way to make their relationship work within a society that seeks to drive them apart; a typical romance plot. In contrast, the characters of A BRIDE’S STORY hope they’ll fall in love as they navigate the intricacies of married life. They enter into arranged marriages, sometimes with prior knowledge of one another and sometimes at their family’s whim, and must work to cultivate something that could potentially become romantic love. The comic focuses on the steps they take to build strong marriages and settle into family life.

I’ve got a total thing for fictional arranged marriages in which trepidation blossoms into affection and mutual respect, so I’m not sure why it took me two readings to fall in love with A BRIDE’S STORY. It’s exactly my thing.

Mori isn’t afraid to explore unconventional storylines in her comics. She employs the female gaze as she explores quieter, more personal moments alongside intense sequences. She often steps away from traditional action for chapters at a time to revel in the tasks women performed in nineteenth century Central Asia. These tasks are as diverse as making bread at communal ovens, hunting with bows and arrows or with hawks, embroidering traditional patterns on household fabrics, fishing, herding sheep and cattle, caring for the household’s children, and decorating the home.

The story is very much about how these tasks and others contribute to the development of interpersonal relationships. A husband a wife build their marriage as they explore mutual interests out on the steppes. Children discover how they fit into their wider family unit when they wander off and observe craftsmen, or when they indulge their love for a particular animal. Chance-met outsiders become part of a family’s inner circle over shared meals and open conversations. Everyone is forever aware of the many ways in which they can foster community and connect with others.

There is an overarching plot centred on Amir’s birth family, who have fallen out with their neighbours over a series of marriages gone wrong; however, it’s very much a background thing. Mori doesn’t neglect it, but neither does she hesitate to take time away from it to focus on Amir’s everyday life, Mr Smith’s romantic woes, or the marriage rites of twin girls near the Aral Sea. I suppose this renders the comic less appealing for those who demand tight plots with few tangents, but anyone who revels in a more character-focused approach is sure to find Mori’s work a delight.

Even if you’re not particularly keen on the story, A BRIDE’S STORY is worth seeking out for the art. Mori has a true gift for evoking movement with her panels, and not just movement of the physical variety. She traces her characters' emotions over multiple panels, showing us the many small reactions that contribute each person's response to any given stimulus. Viewed in rapid succession, her panels effectively blend together in the reader's mind to capture not only what happened but also how the action felt to the character who performed it.

Mori is equally good at evoking her characters' emotions in group scenes, where such a detailed examination of each individual isn't possible. She does plenty of evocative things with wide eyes, stark eyebrows, and mouths that twist in expressive fashion. You know exactly what each character is like: who gets excited easily, who’s hopeful but restrained, who’s kind of bored with it all, and who’d really like to punch the person sitting next to them.

Furthermore, each panel is supremely detailed, right down to the embroidery that adorns each piece of fabric within the home. Mori’s Afterwards indicate a commitment to thorough research, so it’s safe to assume these are traditional patterns that played a role in actual 19th century Central Asians lives. The same is true of the gorgeous clothes her characters wear. I want Amir’s entire wardrobe.

And hey, if you’re not so keen on clothes, Mori also pens some painfully beautiful nudes.

Ahem.

Basically, A BRIDE’S STORY is wonderful. It’s beautifully drawn, lovingly researched, and committed to telling stories from a firmly female perspective. Begin with the expectation that it’s going to be quietly beautiful rather than tumultuous, and you’re in for a real treat.

Links

While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read A BRIDE'S STORY, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the links above.

2 comments:

  1. Gah--I just read these in Feb. and you've got me craving a reread now! I absolutely adored them. :) And this was a beautiful review!

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    1. I'm 100% in favour of an immediate reread!

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