The Color of Earth and The Color of Water

The Color of Earth by Dong Hwa Kim

The Color of Earth
lives up to its title by being extremely earthy. The characters are drenched in nature and preoccupied with relationships. Ehwa’s mother is a tavern owner and her father is long gone, so the seven year old girl must deal with snide comments from her playmates and remarks from the tavern’s customers that she barely understands. As Ehwa goes through puberty, she begins to understand what’s going on with her changing body and she has a brief first love when she encounters a young monk on a narrow bridge. Ehwa’s mother holds herself apart from her male customers, pinning her hopes and dreams on a traveling salesman nicknamed “The Picture Man” due to his ability to express the meaning of names in calligraphy.

This is a quiet, meditative book. While events happen there is no urgency to the plot. I found myself having to work a little in order to sustain the momentum to finish the book. Ehwa and her mother discuss the events of the day and their changing lives in language that refers to the natural world around them. Seldom have I encountered a book where flowers were mentioned so often. Here is a sampling of dialog:

“Do you want to plant the hollyhock seeds tomorrow? Didn’t you say you wanted to cover the entire front yard with those flowers?”
“No…I’d rather plant them on the roadside. All along the road to the orchard farm…that way the peach orchard butterfly can rest from flower to flower.”
“And, finally, rest on your heart?”

Ehwa exchanges flowers with the monk Chung-Myung and decides that her favorite flower is now the tiger lily because it reminds her of the scent of grey robes. Ehwa’s mother plants gourd flowers all over her house because these flowers only open at night, hoping that the scent will somehow summon the Picture Man back to her. Ehwa is distracted by the arrival of the young scholar Sunoo, and begins to make up excuses to gather plants in the orchards near his home. There’s an element of melancholy to this book as Ehwa becomes a young woman and leaves her first loves behind.

The characters are simply drawn but the pastoral backgrounds are rendered in meticulous detail. The plants, wildlife, and flowers that the characters constantly refer to are highlighted, providing a contrast with the simplicity of the characters’ expressions.

The Color of Water by Dong Hwa Kim

There’s more dramatic tension to The Color of Water, as Ehwa’s mother begins to experience a little bit of jealousy about her younger, prettier daughter. Ehwa has a fateful encounter with a young man named Duksam from a nearby village and begins wonder if he’ll be her future husband. The second volume was much easier for me to read than the first. As the characters aged, I found myself more invested in what happened to them. Also there were background details weaved into the storyline that I thought provided more of a window into Korean culture at the time, like an acquaintance of Ehwa’s being betrothed to a 9 year old fiance and having to care for both her new child husband and her grandmother-in-law.

I had mixed feelings about this manhwa but I think it is worth sampling although I think requires more cultural context than the average American will have about manhwa. Most of the other manhwa that makes it over here seems fairly derivative of the standard shoujo and shonen type stuff that everybody’s used to reading. There was something about the style of writing in these books that I just wasn’t able to completely connect with as a reader. For me, the symbolism used in these books would have had more impact if it wasn’t so overwhelming. On the other hand, there were several moments in the series that seemed naturistic and expressive: the arrangement of shoes having an unspoken meaning, walking across a field of flowers, and silently hanging brushes on the wall.

By the end of the second volume I was left curious enough about what would happen to Ehwa that I think I’ll try to read out the third volume of the trilogy, The Color of Heaven. I wanted to like these books more than I did, but I was much more engaged in the series after reading the second book, so I wonder if by the time I finish the third I’ll like the series that much more. If you’re curious to read manhwa with a unique sensibility and literary ambitions, The Color of Earth and the Color of Water are worth checking out.

Review copies provided by the publisher.