Book review of 49 Days by Agnes Lee

Books

Agnes Lee’s debut graphic novel, 49 Days, opens with a series of short vignettes about a young woman trying to make a journey but being foiled—sometimes in dramatic and frightening fashion—by the forces of nature. Every day, she must start her journey only to fail again.

These opening sections are intentionally disorienting for the reader, as they are for the young protagonist, Kit—who, readers soon discover, is actually making her way through what’s known in Buddhist tradition as the bardo, a 49-day space between death and rebirth. 

Kit has died in an accident, and over the course of the novel, Kit’s attempts to reach the afterlife are interspersed with two other narratives: first, Kit’s memories of growing up in a loving family and falling in love; and second, glimpses of how Kit’s two siblings, mother and other loved ones are coping in the wake of her death. 

For Kit’s Korean American family, many memories and important moments center around food, prayer and ritual. Lee, who illustrates the New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary” column, excels at capturing small moments of family life—learning a new word, sharing a meal together, begging to keep a stray cat—and at conveying intense grief—finding new pain in old joys, falling apart at the sight of that beloved cat waiting by the door of an empty room.

Lee cleverly utilizes three different colors, in addition to black and white, to indicate these three different narrative strands: Kit’s metaphysical journey is a soft blue, while her memories are a muted orange and the activities of her living family are a gentle pink. This is an unusual, profoundly moving graphic novel whose elegance belies its complexity and whose emotional impact only grows upon rereading.

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