As “Best of 2006” lists start rolling out, some have noted that 2006 isn’t exactly over yet. June Kim’s 12 Days (Tokyopop) is a solid argument for waiting until January 1 to assemble such lists, because it’s one of the oddest, loveliest books I’ve read all year.
A one-volume piece of global nouvelle manga with a pronounced josei flavor, it’s the kind of book a lot of people have been hoping for since the promise of “Manga After Hours” flickered briefly. It’s an elegantly minimalist examination of love and pain, executed with serious craft by Kim.
Jackie’s ex-lover Noah has died in a car accident. Blindsided by grief, Jackie isolates herself in her apartment with her cat and enlists the help of Noah’s brother, Nick, to complete a ritual she feels will help her move on. She wants to consume Jackie’s ashes over a period of 12 days.
It’s a bit grotesque, but Kim focuses more on the feelings that drive Jackie’s decision than the mechanics of the ritual. Those feelings are portrayed with potent understatement through Jackie and Nick’s elliptical conversations and carefully placed flashbacks of Noah’s life. Kim is a sharp observer of small but telling moments; nothing in 12 Days feels overwrought, but nothing is trivialized either.
And Kim doesn’t reserve her sympathy for Jackie. Nick is an equal partner in grief, mourning his sister’s life and perhaps what he sees as his failures. We’re given glimpses of Noah’s father, devastated for his own reasons. And Kim manages the difficult trick of capturing the things about Noah that would drive a person to both leave her and mourn her. It’s a very graceful presentation of character, emotion, and mood.
Kim’s illustrations are largely ideal for this material. As with the writing, she avoids a tendency to overstate, going for elegant realism for the most part. I was initially put off by her use of some chibi elements, highly stylized bits of cuteness, to lighten transitional moments, but it grew on me as the book moved on. I’m still not entirely sold on the lettering, done in a flat typeset, but it isn’t too distracting. And some of the tone work in the early chapters seems a bit sloppy. On the whole, though, Kim’s strong line work and inventive paneling carry the book through the few rough visual patches.
12 Days is such a lovely and surprising book. I worry that it will get lost on the ever-swelling manga shelves. But if you’ve been hungry for more josei, or any book that takes an imaginative, pointed look at interpersonal relationships, you really should make a point of reading it. It’s a very rewarding experience.