Monday, July 26, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Forget Sorrow, by Belle Yang

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale, by Belle Yang. Published 2010 by W.W. Norton & Company. Graphica. Memoir.

Forget Sorrow is the story of how author Belle Yang's father's family, well-off farmers headed by a traditional patriarch, weathers the many changes and upsets in China during the early part of the 20th century. It's also the story of how she got her name and found her voice as a writer and artist following a devastating abusive relationship.

There are fascinating individual stories that make up the whole- the tragic, short life of a beloved aunt, her father's prodigal Third Uncle, and more. Her great-grandfather's harrowing final journey following the collapse of his farm, family and home could be a separate book. Their stories are beautifully, lovingly illustrated in pen and ink.

But despite the lovely illustration style and complex narrative, Forget Sorrow didn't really work for me. My difficulties with the book are mostly structural. First of all, at around 250 pages, Forget Sorrow is long by graphic novel standards and there are no chapters or section breaks to give the reader natural stopping points, while the complexity of the narrative makes it difficult to put down and pick up- and it's too long to read in one sitting.

Secondly, after about the engaging first third of the book, the presentation becomes static. Almost every page is divided into the same six panels with a text block occupying the same 1/4 or so of space at the top, filled with narration in a very monotonous style. The pictures, which are lovely, don't so much tell the story as illustrate the narration, with the overall effect being tiring on the eyes and the attention. I had to remind myself to actually look at the pictures sometimes, because I could move from panel to panel along the straight visual line of the narration. Pictures and text should work together and panels should be varied and engaging and keep the reader's eye moving all over the page. I shouldn't have to remind myself to look at the pictures.

On balance, Forget Sorrow is a moving family story integrating history and culture, as well as the story of a Chinese-American woman trying to reconnect with her heritage, and suitable for teens and adults alike. That final story gets a little lost in the hurried up ending, and in the final analysis I think the book may just have been trying to do too much. Having said that, I'd rather read an ambitious book that falls a little short than read a simplistic book that doesn't try hard enough. I'd still be interested to read her next graphic work and for readers with a particular interest in Chinese history, there's still a lot to recommend Forget Sorrow.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the author/publisher.