Desert Isle Keeper
The Story of Life on the Golden Fields
The Story of Life on the Golden Fields manhwa, or Korean graphic novel, trilogy transports you to pre-modern Korea for two lyrical, sensual love stories. In the first book, The Color of Earth , a young girl named Ehwa grows from child to young teen and experiences her first crushes, and her unnamed mother falls in love with a traveling artist. The Color of Water, the second book, shows an older Ehwa falling in love with a handsome local laborer, and in the third book, The Color of Heaven , the two women wait for the men they love and plan Ehwa’s wedding. The books read like beautiful foreign films in pen and ink. I loved this trilogy.
Strong, positive mother-daughter relationships in romances are as rare as ugly heroes. The authentic and affectionate bond between Ehwa and her mother is at the core of this trilogy, and it grows and changes as Ehwa matures. These are clearly two women who love each other very much, showing through words and actions how much they want each other to be happy. Ehwa, for instance, returns home unexpectedly while her mother’s lover is visiting, and opts to sit outside all night rather than disrupt their time together. Ehwa’s mother fiercely rebuffs a marriage offer for Ehwa from an elderly but wealthy man. The love stories are a bit terser, with the couples falling in love relatively quickly and spending significant time apart. The emphasis is less on the loves themselves, but rather on how love, relationships, and marriage transform the lives of women.
It was very hard for me to pick a sensuality label for this trilogy. Sex is front-and-center for the entire work. Topics like female arousal, masturbation, and wet dreams are explored. Sometimes we see relatively explicit images (although no nudity below the waist), but often the story is told in partially concealed embraces and metaphors. As a film, it would probably have been rated R in the US. Overall, the books feel sensual rather than erotic.
Sex is always talked about in its emotional and social/cultural contexts. Despite the premodern setting, the attitude towards women’s sexuality is more enlightened than in some contemporary romances I’ve read. Ehwa’s friend Bongsoon, for instance, is sexually precocious, always sneaking off to experiment with her boyfriend. Yet she isn’t “punished” by the author with a ruined life or reputation, remaining friends with Ehwa throughout the trilogy (although she is depicted as coarser and more frowsy than the elegant, polished Ehwa). Bongsoon even uses her advanced knowledge to teach Ehwa about female masturbation. There are outdated gender roles, as when Ehwa’s mother discourages her from traveling after her love by telling her that the task of women is to stay home and wait. However, this is accurate to the setting. I’d rather see characters take authentically sexist positions than act like they’ve fallen out of time (and place) machines from the present-day West.
Artistically, this is among the most beautiful graphic novels I’ve ever read. The landscapes are stunning and evocative. Settings like houses and temples are meticulously depicted, down to the painted columns and thatched or tiled roofs. The traditional women’s dresses, called hanbok, and Ehwa’s full bridal regalia are sumptuous. The illustration of a wrestling match won by Ehwa’s love Duksam is a direct homage to a famous Korean painting. It’s simply a visual feast.
On top of the literal images, the books take full advantage of the storytelling possibilities of a graphic novel. The author takes us through Ehwa’s wedding night though a blend of literal and metaphorical images. A tear of pain on her cheek becomes a drop rippling the surface of a pond. The pond transforms into rings of flowers raining down on the increasingly aroused bride, who then takes flight as a sky full of lanterns.
I appreciate that the translator kept a lot of local flavor in the dialogue, using subscripts at the bottom of the page to clear things up if they’re confusing. For instance, when Ehwa experiences premenstrual bloating, her mother asks “Do you want me to prick your finger?” The subtitles then explain that releasing a few drops of blood from the fingertip is traditionally thought to be a cure for indigestion. It has long been a habit in graphic novels to neutralize such dialogue into something like “Could I get you some tea?” I hope the success of the Golden Fields books encourages more faithful translations and fewer dumbed-down ones.
The literary side of the books is also lovely. The internal monologues, particularly Ehwa’s mother’s, read like blank verse poems. The translator does a wonderful job capturing this in English. At times, the characters speaking in symbols grows a bit old, but I still vastly preferred it to finding modern English in my historicals.
The words are beautiful. The art is beautiful. The relationships are beautiful. The books celebrate women’s sexuality. What more are you waiting for? Buy this trilogy.