"Opium has many virtues," my grandmother would say. "It's not just good for reducing pain. Look at me, I have always had wide open eyes like you... So when I was younger, I took a little taste before going to parties. It made my eyelids heavy. It gave me a languorous look. By the way, you should learn to close your eyes a little."
"You really think that I look vibrant and intelligent like this?"
"No, but you'll find lovers more easily."
I love Marjane Satrapi. Those pestered by me on the shop floor to pick up her autobiography PERSEPOLIS can be in no doubt that I have been blown away by her strength, skill, honesty and compassion. It was a staggeringly good book, a classic example of where comics comes to the fore: encouraging seemingly ordinary people to tell their own extraordinary stories. In Marjane's case, it was her story of growing up during the Islamic revolution in Iran, being sent away to school in Europe, then returning to her parents for her early adult life under a strict ideological regime. Funny, thoughtful, and challenging without being simplistically confrontational. It was no surprise to me to see the back of the hardcover crowded with agreement from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, Time and Newsweek, and this book also garnered excellent reviews. I wasn't so sure.
EMBROIDERIES is a group conversation in which Marjane listens as her Grandma and other relatives sit down with their friends and neighbours, and - women together - discuss their sex lives with revealing candour. Some are more experienced than others, some more cynical, some more romantic, but there are many common threads (the embroidery in question included) which together weave a tapestry of the day-to-day reality of being ordinarily sexually active women in a society very different from our own. There are expectations of virginity before marriage which aren't remotely realistic and which therefore need to be... dealt with (can you see what the title refers to yet?). There are very real dangers in leaving the country as one initially naive woman did to be with her husband abroad, or to marry someone from another country if they have agendas of their own.
Individually, these tales are fascinating.
But I really don't see the same skill going into their telling as it did with PERSEPOLIS. One could say that this is an honest account of real conversations and that to touch them all up with wit that wasn't there would be dishonest. There is a merit to that argument, although I'm not entirely sure I agree with it. In any case, that's not what I'm getting at. I don't think the visual storytelling itself is up to Satrapi's standards - in fact I don't think it's close, I think this is lazy with floating heads here, full-page illustrations there, and... no real attempt to keep you stimulated. Worse still is the unnecessary inclusion of bits of wince-worthy commentary by other listeners:
"Hee! Hee! Hee! I love that expression!! Hee! Hee! Hee! Hee! A full embroidery!"
And coming back to this being a "real" conversation, do you think Marjane taped it? Or that she can really remember exactly what everyone said? Because a page like that, especially the "Hee! Hee! Hee!", is just awkward.
Given that this book has already won a stream of reputable awards, I fully expect to look like some shambling troglodyte for not fully joining in. It would be lovely to appear learned and nod my head in knowing agreement with the comicbook cognoscenti, especially since I happen to treasure the creator. The subject matter is exactly what I'm looking for in a comic as well, something which we don't see enough of, plus there are some delightful passages like the one I quoted at the top. I just wanted a little more craft.
Recommended, all the same. I have it.