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Belle Yang
Forget Sorrow
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

W. W. Norton
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-393-06834-4
Publication Date: 05-10-2010
256 pages, $24
Date Reviewed: 10-21-2010

Index:  Non-Fiction

We meet Belle Yang as she lays on a hillside with an empty pad of paper in front her. "Baba," she tells us named her, "Xuan. It means 'Forget Sorrow.'"

That's a tall order, considering the life she reveals in 'Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale ' (Norton ; May 10, 2010 ; $23.95). Yang's graphic memoir is a mesmerizing mix of the personal and the political set against the backdrop of Chinese history few Americans have any real knowledge of. The intimate relations of a traditional family grab the reader's heart, while the grand-scale events that bring so much sorrow are made real by virtue of our emotional connection to Yang's family history. The graphic memoir format affords Yang a great means of telling these stories on a variety of levels.

Yang's illustrations have a rough-hewn feel that suits the raw nature of the story. They're simple and powerful, but feel personal. There's a sort of rush of emotion that seems to fill the illustrations, and they carry the reader's eye across the page and into the story effectively. The lettering, done in a computerized version of Yang's own writing, is easily enough read so as to keep the flow.

The page layouts and panels are nicely sized for reading. The density of the illustrations never overwhelms the pages, and even those unaccustomed to reading in the graphic novel format will find this book easily assimilated. The faces and figures we meet here are imbued with the complicated sentiments of a family. There is love, dissention, distrust, trust, compassion, anger, joy, and more — the actual emotions of a family embodies in a few careful strokes. It may look simple at first glance, but the characters are richly revealed.

Yang's story is light framed by a present-day narrative of reconciliation with her parents. The frame itself is multilayered and complex. It's a nice way to take readers into a deep past that is to many of us truly incomprehensible. Once we are in China, readers are swept into a family history that is no less than astonishing. Through multiple generations, through war where they live, which is almost comprehensible, to the Cultural Revolution, Yang explores her own background with stories, stories-within-stories and the bitter feuds that only families can achieve. Yang's work is pretty raw; the nature of the illustrations matches the nature of the story.

'Forget Sorrow' is not a straightforward family narrative, and the reading experience is an unusual combination of complex structure that is easily assimilated. The effect is not unlike reading a long unfolding scroll, with small friezes dedicated to sub-plots that are embraced by the larger narrative. Yang's story is like no other, and her presentation is just as exotic, while being immersive and accessible. For each of us, our families are our worlds. 'Forget Sorrow' reveals to us a family and a world like no other — but like every family, and every private world. Our own history seems clear to us as we are immersed in it. But eventually, we will be nothing more than a diversion, a brief slip sideways in time. Our reading lives can indeed expand ever outward — and inward.

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