The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa: B

Ehwa and her mother, a young widow, live in the village of Namwon. Ehwa’s mother runs a tavern and bawdy local fellows often attempt to convince her to go to bed with them. When seven-year-old Ehwa overhears a couple of villagers insinuating that her mother is loose, she begins to wonder about the differences between men and women.

As the years go by, Ehwa matures. She sees firsthand how a man’s attentions bring out liveliness in her mother, and meets two local boys that catch her eye. Chung-Myung, a monk in training, returns her feelings but chooses his religious vocation over pursuing a relationship. Sunoo, a refined and educated boy, is polite to Ehwa but leaves town without a backward glance.

Stories of first love can be poignant and affecting if done right, but The Color of Earth unfortunately fails in this regard. The problem is that instead of dealing with Ehwa’s growing emotional maturity, the focus is almost exclusively on sexual maturity. From practically the first page, more time is spent on charting landmarks of sexual discovery—oftentimes rather crudely—than on any other aspect of Ehwa and her life.

Women are consistently compared to flowers throughout the book, and not in a way that is complimentary. A woman’s burgeoning sexuality is likened unto the bloom of a flower, and comparisons are made between the way a flower waits for a butterfly to alight upon it and the way a woman waits for a man to bestow his attentions upon her. Sometimes this metaphor is used well, though, as when Chung-Myung uses the camellia—a flower that blooms only in the winter and therefore never sees a butterfly—to make Ehwa see that it would be better if she didn’t care for him, as he must devote himself to his training.

There are two warring styles in evidence in the art, which features realistically drawn landscapes but almost cartoonish people. While this style works well for the cuter and/or cruder moments, ultimately it bears some of the responsibility for why the story lacks emotional resonance. It’s difficult to take Ehwa’s feelings for Chung-Myung seriously when he always looks so bumbling and childish.

The story does have its good points, the relationship between Ehwa and her mother chief among them. The volume’s final pages also ratchet up the drama, which may bode well for the second and third books of the trilogy. As it stands, though, this first installment is a bit of a disappointment.

The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, volumes two and three in the trilogy, will be released in June and September 2009, respectively.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

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  1. Danielle Leigh says

    this was *such* a well written review…I agreed with everything you said (particularly about the 2 “warring” art styles, which I think mirrors the strange mix of the metaphorical and the shocking realistic in the volume). In general, I think I just *enjoyed* the read more than you in spite of the fact we seem to perceive the same things in it.

  2. Danielle Leigh says

    blerg. That should be “shocking realism”.

  3. Thank you! That’s an interesting point regarding the art. if I were getting really deep, I’d say that they represent the solid safety of the world Ehwa’s always known as contrasted with all these new things she’s learning about.

    This review was really difficult to write *because* I didn’t dislike the book. I just felt I could’ve liked it more. I am fairly prudish, though, so I admit that many will not agree with what I call “crude.” 🙂

  4. You said all that and still gave it a B? I expected lower when I saw this section: “more time is spent on charting landmarks of sexual discovery—oftentimes rather crudely—than on any other aspect of Ehwa and her life. Women are consistently compared to flowers throughout the book, and not in a way that is complimentary.”

  5. I really struggled to assign a grade to this one. To me, a B means “not bad,” and it isn’t, and I liked it more than other things that I’ve given a B-.

  6. Thanks for elaborating. It’s times like these that I’m glad I took the easy way out with no ratings. 🙂

    To me, A means great, B means good, and C means “not bad/standard”.

  7. I have such trouble with assigning grades. For whatever reason, years of school gave me really negative feelings about a “C.” I don’t think of a C as being “not bad,” but rather, substandard, I guess because that’s how I learned to evaluate a C given to *me* as a grade. I would have considered a C something to be ashamed of. When I give something a C, it is because I didn’t like it but thought it could have been worse. Heh. I wonder why my perception is so different than Johanna’s (and I think most of the reviewers at MR).

  8. Yeah, that’s the trouble with grades—everyone has a different system. 🙂 I do like that they’re an easy way to see what someone thought of something I’m considering buying without actually reading the review and getting spoiled.

    I also think of Cs as something I didn’t really enjoy.

  9. I absolutely loathe giving letter grades with my reviews, since I know tastes are so subjective. :/ (My personal scale is something like, A=amazing, B=enjoyable, C=meh, D=ugh, F=Worst Thing Ever. Since I’ve only given one F grade on MangaLife, I feel like the last one is entirely valid.)

  10. That’s not dissimilar from how I look at it. I don’t think I’ve ever given anything an F yet, and that includes Twilight!


  1. […] This thread over at Soliloquy in Blue made me finally aware of something I had sort of suspected for a while, which is that my perception of what a grade means is quite different from a lot of other people’s. It all comes down to the “C” and I think it probably has to do with a number of factors. Because of the fact that these are academic grades, I tend to still think of them just as I did when I was in school and to me, a C, which is supposed to be “average” was basically the same as a failing grade. I never once felt okay about getting a C. “C” was, in my young mind, a terrible fate to be avoided at all costs, and I took that to heart. Honestly, even “B” felt pretty crappy, but “C” was just unthinkable. Is this ridiculous? Probably. And probably it says more about me and my schooling than anything else (and none of it good). Thing is, my feelings about those grades are still there, so when I’m assigning a grade to a book, giving it a C feels pretty much like a death knell, and I’m unlikely to assign that grade to anything I liked even a little. […]

  2. […] Michelle Smith: Stories of first love can be poignant and affecting if done right, but The Color of Earth […]

  3. […] This actually brings me to another point you made in one of your reviews, regarding the consistent focus on Ehwa’s developing sexual maturity as opposed to her […]

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