Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Comic artist Madang, his wife, and new baby have just moved to a rural home on the outskirts of Seoul in order to provide the best life they can for their family…and to put some distance between Madang and his parents. Once close to his mother, Madang's relationship with them has deteriorated over the years, but their failing health is forcing him to start really thinking about what it means to be a son and a parent. There are some bonds, he finds, that can never be broken – even if maintaining them is more painful than anything.
Umma's Table, from Yeon-sik Hong, the creator of Uncomfortably Happily, is one of those works that will likely affect you differently at various times in your life. The story follows Madang, a forty-year-old man who has just had his first child and at the same time is dealing with the fact that his parents are aging and in failing health, two opposite stages of life with his own stuck in the middle. Read at a time when your own parents are aging, the book is difficult, as some of Madang's struggles (both emotional and otherwise) are all too real; read before that point makes it a bit scary as you're encouraged to think about what's ahead and how you'll deal with it. And reading it after parents are gone is likely a whole different experience as you reflect back. It's a testament to the power of Hong's work that these separate readings are so easily understandable or even possible, but it also means that Umma's Table is not the easiest of graphic novels to read.
Fortunately for us, “good” and “easy” do not need to be synonymous in fiction. Hong handles the escalating situation with Madang's family with subtlety, showing us some parts, telling us other, and finally being completely honest as the end nears so that we can truly understand what's behind Madang's difficult relationship with his mother, specifically. (His resentment of his father is easily understood almost from the man's first appearance.) As this unfolds, we also see moments of tension between Madang and his wife, but mostly we come to understand that the most difficult relationship in his life may actually be the one he has with himself as he struggles between the desire to break free of his parents and live his own life and his duty as a son to help elderly relatives.
Parts of this may not always feel completely accessible to western readers simply because there is more of an assumption that when you grow up, you move out of your parents' house and start your own life, but Madang's emotional reactions are strongly enough written that they are relatable even with this potential cultural barrier. We can also see how past actions Madang took on behalf of his mother didn't work out as he had hoped they would – namely, moving her out of the sphere of his alcoholic father – and reconciling those efforts with the strong, loving mother he remembers from his childhood. Although many emotions come across over the course of the book, one of the strongest is quite simply bewilderment as Madang tries to understand what happened to the mother he remembered to turn her into the mother currently in front of him.
The story, told across chapters of varying lengths, goes back and forth between the life Madang and his wife are building and Madang going back into Seoul to take his parents to doctor appointments. The juxtaposition between the two backdrops are very well shown in the art: in the countryside, the art is simpler, with more blank space to show the amount of distance and freedom Madang feels, while scenes taking place in the city are closely drawn, feeling dark and cramped. The elderly he encounters in the country are all hale and active people, creating a dissonance with his frail, overweight, and largely sedentary parents. Whenever Madang thinks back to his childhood, he remembers his mother using the word “young;” at first this just seems like he's referring to the fact that she had him when she was only twenty, but as the story progresses, it becomes clearer that he's having trouble reconciling his past memories with current truths – and how those may relate to himself. Some of the things Madang criticizes his mother for (such as not managing her weight) his wife points out that he is guilty of as well, and that's not a connection that he's capable of seeing beyond the emotional barrier that he has set up. He tries to understand his parents and their deterioration, but his little boy self (paralleled to a degree in scenes with his son) keeps getting in the way.
To say that this book can be upsetting may be understating the matter, but, if this makes sense, it's a good kind of upsetting. The final fifty pages are heartbreaking in a variety of ways, but getting there, watching his mother deteriorate in three hundred pages while Madang and his brother essentially look on helplessly, is just as difficult. Hong's cartoony style works well with the hard subject matter, allowing readers a bit of distance from the story while still conveying everything that it needs to get across. By the end of the story, the most challenging piece of the book to accept is that Madang may never really understand his mother – he can't live her life and he can't undo the decision he made earlier in his that might have prevented him from being, in his own mind, a better son. But he can keep his memories of his mother alive by cooking the meals he remembers from his childhood and making sure that every spread is one that could have been on umma (mommy)'s table. That's how he honors her, and if it doesn't always feel like enough…sometimes it's just all that you have to work with.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B+
+ Emotionally relatable story with different noticeable elements depending on when you read it. Strongly written.
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