A Bride’s Story
Created by: Kaoru Mori
Published by: Yen Press
ISBN: 0316180998 (Amazon)
I have a wary appreciation for guides. Especially when visiting unfamiliar lands, having someone to help facilitate one’s journey into the unknown can be a blessing. When I was wandering around Europe in the mid-Aughts, the cities in which I had friends waiting were comfortable stays. When things went awry—as they inevitably would—having a native’s sturdy hand to navigate the unknown kept me from a great deal of unpleasantness in my journeys. And ready access to someone who could ease the cultural tensions between myself and those who didn’t grow up in my precise formative circumstances was invaluable.
The trade-off, of course, is adventure. Not all adventure—as one can still seek adventure in the partially-known—but a substantial amount of it. In my same European excursion, I came to several cities (Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, and Amsterdam) where I had no contact to contact, no guide to call upon. My experiences in these stops were far more varied and exciting; some left warmly cherished memories while others left impressions I’d as soon forget. In Budapest, I visited a zoological gardens, spent a day at the national art museum, visited a bathhouse, went dancing with strangers, almost got stabbed in a hostel, and pooped my pants while taking a lady to dinner. It was glorious. In Berlin, I got very lost, huddled cold on the floor of a train station, walked in on a crowd of soccer hooligans knee-deep in some rivalry-driven fight, and was generally just scared and tired. Not so glorious. Still, for all that, I’m still a fan of the idea of adventure.
Mostly. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate convenience a bit more. My back’s not so good at supporting a full backpack for hours and hours. Sleeping on floors no longer sounds remotely fun. I spend so much of my day-to-day life worrying about what to do and when and how—kind of the last thing I want my excursions to be marked by is that kind of struggle. So when I say I’m happy to have Kaoru Mori serve as my guide into the history, locales, and culture of the 19th century Caspian region, I hope you’ll understand and indulge my weakness. If it helps, she proves an able and inexhaustible docent.
In A Bride’s Story Mori deposits the reader leagues away from the British romance of manners she crafted in Emma, instead exploring rural and nomadic life along the Western track of the Silk Road during the Great Game era. Mori has so far focused her attention specifically in what is probably northern Kazakhstan, near the expanding Russian border. The culture she describes is rich in a heritage and practice that will be largely unfamiliar to the average American reader. This is a land of yurts, shepherds, big families, khanates, delicate carvings, intricate weavings, and ornate embroideries. Much of A Bride’s Story serves as educational documentary, explaining carefully the importance of these facets of the peoples the story concerns—and it’s a mark of Mori’s talents that these lessons are never dull. The story, while pausing its plot elements for a description of tribal politics or the importance of rug-hanging, is built and embellished and given life through these brief excursions.
The most obvious of the more unique aspects of the culture Mori explores in A Bride’s Story is this people’s tradition for youthful marriages. The author explains in her endnotes to the first volume that the average marrying couple in the region would have been fifteen to sixteen years of age. For dramatic purposes here, she adds and subtracts four years from the average for her principle couple—though in a subversion of the trope, the bride is twenty and the groom only twelve. This creates numerous opportunities for thoughtful consideration of how different cultures might deal with the man/woman dynamic—as well as plenty of related awkwardness for both reader and characters alike. Amir, the bride, is often torn between mothering her young husband, Karluk, and approaching him like a young woman who is gradually falling in love. Further adding to the dynamism of the work is the fact that at twenty years old, Amir is viewed by her society as an old maid and there is no small concern that Karluk may have been slighted by being given a wife who will likely bear him few children. In a culture in which large families are essential to survival, gaining a wife who will produce few offspring is like buying a new car that turns out to be a lemon. Amir, therefore, is eager to please her husband and new family, which gives Mori ample opportunity to display the bride’s considerable talents. Amir hunts, herds sheep, embroiders, shows a talent at horsemanship to rival any of the men in the family, and has a good decorative sense.
I could not do this, but I’m glad somebody can.
A Bride’s Story offers contemporary readers a delightful opportunity to exercise the skill of reading and enjoying a text without finding moral agreement with the circumstances, actions, or particulars of its protagonists. For this reason, A Bride’s Story may even be desirable to get into the hands of younger readers (despite some occasional nudity) if for no other purpose than to promote this critical ability at an early age. Mori makes this an elementary text for this kind of exercise. Almost no American reader will approach the text thinking it good or appropriate that a grown woman should marry a boy who is only straddling the boundary between childhood and puberty—yet that is the circumstance this culture forces on its two very winning protagonists. Further, the reversal of the autumn-spring relationship trope presents opportunities to consider the contemporary sexual politic. As well, it’s interesting to see a situation in which a clearly competent, intelligent, and mature woman should still be ultimately under the authority of a child (a kind child who evidently cares deeply for his new charge, but nonetheless…).
As with Emma, Mori crafts an exciting story that keeps a reader’s interest—even while she explores all kinds of cultural nooks, crannies, etc.—but so far, the real star of the show is her artwork. Mori seems to have matured since Emma and her designs and layouts carry more interest. Atop that, she commits the biggest personal sin a cartoonist can. A Bride’s Story is, in every page, filled with highly detailed and ornamented clothing. The kind of stuff that looks ridiculously cool on a cover or poster, but isn’t the kind of thing anyone would want to draw over and over and over again. It would take me probably a day to draw a single panel that featured one of Amir’s dresses. Or a rug. Or some throwaway eaxmple of embroidery. She makes American artists who can’t keep a schedule seem like a sad, tawdry bunch.
The truth is, I think she’s probably a bit insane. Her art is that detailed and beautiful. People like to talk about Craig Thompson’s ornamentation in Habibi. I think he did some amazing stuff in there and I still think he comes of as lazy compared to what’s on display in an average chapter of A Bride’s Story (no offense, man!). Actually, I’m aware that many manga artists employ a team in order to meet their deadlines and I desperately hope that Mori does the same. For her sake. For the sake of other artist’s egos. For the sake of my ego. I think that highly of her work here.
Earlier, I mentioned that I was happy to have Kaoru Mori as my guide in the foreign world of the 19th century Caspian region. My ignorance of the region and its history is complete. I know less about the 19th century Silk Road than I know about nearly every other place and time ever. I am, in other words, a complete foreigner. Mori has my whole trust and I have no idea how deeply she is embellishing or romanticizing the culture. She could actually be lying outright and I wouldn’t know. The entire premise could be built on fantasy or sci-fi. But it doesn’t matter, not to me. Mori’s vision is so splendidly realized that the reality of it doesn’t matter at all, not to me. I’ve been introduced to a world that, in any case, no longer exists (I presume) and I am wholly invested in that world. It’s strange and frightening and exuberant. Despite the fact that I am being ably escorted through the region by a steady hand, the entire experience effuses a sense of adventure. And really, what better thing could be said for a book?
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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