Friday, August 25, 2017

The Best We Could Do

Parenthood changes a person, and it is the framing sequence of The Best We Could Do, a complex, heartfelt, and evocative book that touches on family, history, and humanity. The initial scenes from a hospital precipitate everything that follows, and this book touches on a great number of serious topics. It looks at relationships with parents, but it also puts her specific relationship into context by delving into their pasts. Along the way, we are privy to their formative years in Vietnam, get to know about their families and their hopes and aspirations, and then see how life played out. Like the narrative throughout the book, these depictions are presented in non-linear, rich, and human fashion. The parents' lives are not simple hero narratives, but shown to be full of tragedies, triumphs, luck, routines, patterns, and stamina.
Also, the setting of this book shows the effects of colonialism on a country, the effects of war, the travails of being a refugee, and the discomforts that come from being an immigrant. This last set of concerns is especially topical right now, as we see similar situations over the world, with there being a dehumanizing and hateful backlash to people trying to find a place in the world. This book puts a much needed human face on such circumstances without resorting to simple good/bad narratives.
The simple, sparse artwork tells a strong story with a devastating economy. Several simple juxtapositions communicate volumes, such as drawing a country to be a person's spine or seeing a mother's pained face in the delivery room where her daughter is about to give birth. These simple features belie complicated pasts and relationships in a few strokes, and the muted colors and stark figures add much affect in surprisingly powerful fashion. I did not know what to expect when I started this book, but I loved it. As a parent and a son of immigrants (though not ones from such plights as the ones here), I found much to relate to, sympathize with, and ponder in this beautifully and intricately rendered book.

Thi Bui created this book over the course of many years, beginning it from her thesis project on her family's oral history. She teaches high school, and this book is her debut graphic novel. She speaks about her work on it and much more in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Robert Kirby called it "an important, wise, and loving book." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and wrote, "In excavating her family’s trauma through these brief, luminous glimpses, Bui transmutes the base metal of war and struggle into gold." John McMurtie noted that "Bui’s memoir elicits complex emotions from understated pen-and-ink drawings."

The Best We Could Do was published by Abrams ComicArts, and they have a preview and much more information about the book here. There is also another lengthy preview from PEN America.

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