Review by Erica Friedman
In any series focusing on the passage of a girl from childhood to womanhood, the focus almost invariably tends to be on the relationship between the young woman and her partner. Their recognition of their interest in and eventually, desire for, one another takes up a great deal of the narrative.
In Color of Heaven, Ehwa’s journey to adulthood is told through the shifting relationship she has with her mother – a woman who has chosen the same fate as the one Ehwa now embraces. They both sit and wait for the man they love to return to them to give their lives meaning.
Ehwa, at the opening of the book, has already matured beyond her best friend and peer. While the other girl speaks of the men she might have and the wedding she aspires to, Ehwa has already set that phase aside, and has moved into the position of her mother’s compatriot in waiting. Her mother’s struggle with relating to her daughter as an equal was, for me, the most interesting part of the story.
I felt that the language of the book was both very beautiful and awkward. Laced heavily with unrealistic platitudes that are increasingly heaped upon our heads, many of them about the “lot of women,” I began to find the dialogue burdensome. Women, we are told, are plain trees in the winter that wait for a butterfly man to alight on our branches to adorn us. Waiting is punishment for women’s love. Women are, in fact, nothing without men. While the language is beautiful, it fails the Bechdel Test completely. The women do nothing but discuss men. As David Welsh so cogently summed it up, “not a fan of the notion that the power and mystery of women lies in their ability to wait for men.” When I read a few of these “us poor women” lines to my wife, she asked quite sincerely, if the mother hated her daughter. It was depressing to tell her that she did not, she was just indoctrinating Ehwa into life as a woman.
The art is also lovely in its own way, reminiscent of woodblock prints at times. It fails to create a facial distinction between people, so that I often only knew it was Ehwa speaking because of her clothes. As I find this to be true in pretty much any other graphic genre (manga, American comics, etc) I don’t hold it against the book.
The series has a happy ending, which redeemed much of the “woe is us” feel of the early pages, but I absolutely could not recommend this book to a young woman, Especially not one young enough to have an idealized conception of what life in a relationship might be. The trilogy might be meant as a memoir, a glimpse into the past of a family and a culture, but I’d much rather give a young woman a strong, competent role model, rather than forcing her to shoulder the weight of this past powerlessness.
I might, perhaps, recommend it to a mother with a daughter approaching adulthood, because the experience of mothers and daughters is as timeless as the experience of men and women in love.
The Color of Heaven | Written by Kim Dong Hwa | Published by First Second
Ed Sizemore saysJune 23, 2010 at 10:11 am
I never got the feeling this series was meant to be normative for modern girls/women. I saw this as an historical reflection on what it meant to be a woman back then. More of a reminder of how powerless women were even romantically. Maybe the reader is meant to be dissatisfied on some level. A way to awaken men and women to see how the culture has historically called for women to be passive but that kind of life isn’t fulfilling for women. So we should strive for equality.
At the same time, I think there are some beautiful reflections on the nature of romantic love and how a marriage built on mutual affection is more satisfying than an arranged marriage. Also, some of the sacrifices and frustrations of being in a committed relationship that is anchored more deeply than just emotion.
But I might be romanticizing the series.
Erica saysJune 23, 2010 at 11:50 am
Ed – I think your comment actually captures exactly what I disliked most about this manhwa. The author is also a man and also appears to believe he’s portraying girl-to-womanhood as a beautiful thing. Speaking as a woman, the story made me want to spit.
It really wasn’t beautiful. It was *opressive*. Heavy-handed and burdensome. Women, even women in the past, were more than just holes for sperm, but you’d never know it from this book.
Perhaps men need to, oh, I don’t know, talk to a woman from time to time, rather than project their fantasies about innocence and the instant maturity that sex (with a man, of course) confers upon us.
Ed Sizemore saysJune 24, 2010 at 7:58 am
Well, I never meant to imply that women are only sperm receptacles and baby makers. Because the focus of the series was the sexual and emotional maturity of Ehwa, I didn’t expect the author to venture beyond that subject. If this was more of a general ‘what it was like to grow up at the beginning ofthe 20th Century’ then I would expect a more well rounded picture of Ehwa, her mother, and their daily life. I guess that’s why the narrow focus didn’t bother me as much.