For nearly 3,000 years, the Silk Road connected Asia with Africa and the Middle East, providing a conduit for the ancient world’s most precious commodities: silk, spices, glassware, medicine, perfume, livestock. By the nineteenth century, when A Bride’s Story takes place, the overland trade routes had been eclipsed in importance by maritime ones that linked China directly with India, Somalia, and the Mediterranean. Yet the Silk Road continued to play a vital role in bridging smaller geographical divides, as the main plot in A Bride’s Story demonstrates.
Set in Central Asia, A Bride’s Story focuses on two clans: the Halgal, a nomadic tribe whose livelihood depends on a mixture of hunting and herding, and the Eihon, farmers with a permanent homestead near the Caspian Sea. The families arrange a marriage between twenty-year-old Amir, the oldest Halgal daughter, and twelve-year-old Karluk, the future Eihon patriarch. As that age gap implies, Amir and Karluk’s union is one of political and economic expedience, designed to help the Eihon clan preserve its territory. Each family has reservations about the match: the Eihon believe that Amir is too old to bear Karluk a good-sized family, while the Halgal want to dissolve the union and betroth Amir to the leader of a neighboring tribe.
Amir and Karluk, however, seem more content with the arrangement than their elders. Given their age gap, Amir is more mother than wife to Karluk. There’s a note of urgency and purpose in Amir’s ministrations — she’s keen to prove her worth to the Eihons, especially when Karluk falls ill — but there’s also a genuine warmth and kindness in her gestures. Karluk, for his part, seems very much like a young teenager, intrigued by Amir’s beauty and charisma, but still too uncomfortable in his own skin to be physically demonstrative with her; Amir seems much keener to consummate their marriage, lest she lose her standing with the Eihon clan.
One of the great pleasures of A Bride’s Story is its strong cast of female characters. Balkirsh, the Eihon matriarch, proves Amir’s staunchest ally, fiercely rebuffing the Halgal’s efforts to reclaim Amir with a well-placed arrow. Though Balkirsh never explicitly states why she identifies with her daughter-in-law, the bow-and-arrow scene is telling, hinting at a shared cultural heritage that binds the two women. Amir, too, is a memorable character; she’s a terrific physical specimen, agile and fearless on horseback, but her true strength is her keen emotional intelligence. She accepts her new marriage without complaint, rapidly insinuating herself into the Eihon clan while preserving her own sense of self by introducing Karluk to her family’s customs.
The artwork, too, is another compelling reason to read A Bride’s Story. As she did in Emma and Shirley, Kaoru Mori pours her energy into period detail: clothing, furnishings, architecture. By far her most striking designs are the tribal costumes worn by the Eihon and the Halgal. Mori painstakingly draws embroidery, ornaments, and layers of fabric; watching Amir mount her horse, one can almost hear the swish of her skirts and the jingle of her earrings. Mori is similarly meticulous when rendering the surfaces of common household objects; she etches an intricate floral design into a silver tea set and weaves elegant, delicate patterns into the rugs that grace the walls and floors of the Eihon compound, luxuriating in the artistry with which these items were made.
At the same time, however, the Central Asian setting grants Mori greater license to make her characters move — something she rarely did in the overstuffed parlors and crowded London streets in Emma and Shirley. To be sure, Mori’s flair for staging dynamic scenes was evident in Emma, when Hakim Atawari made a show-stopping entrance astride an elephant. In A Bride’s Story, however, Mori’s active sequences are less flashy and more fluid; they feel less like dramatic stunts than an organic part of the story, helping the reader understand how physically taxing Amir and Karluk’s labors are while helping us appreciate the scale and severity of the landscape.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of volume one is just how uneventful it is. Kaoru Mori is content to let her narrative follow the rhythms of everyday life, pausing to show us a master carver in his wood shop, or a group of women cooking a meal, or a young boy tending chickens. Yet A Bride’s Story is never dull, thanks to Mori’s smart, engaging dialogue; as she demonstrated in Emma and Shirley, Mori can make even the simplest moments revealing, whether her characters are preparing a manor house for the master’s return or discussing the merits of rabbit stew. By allowing her story to unfold in such a naturalistic fashion, A Bride’s Story manages to be both intimate and expansive, giving us a taste of what it might have been like to live along the Silk Road in the nineteenth century. Highly recommended.
A BRIDE’S STORY, VOL. 1 • BY KAORU MORI • YEN PRESS • 192 pp. • RATING: OLDER TEEN (16+)