Even the Least Planets are Beautiful in the Eyes of the Empire

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House of Women
Sophie Goldstein
Fantagraphics, 2017
200 pages, $29.99
Reviewed by Ashley Miller

Sophie Goldstein’s graphic novel, House of Women, begins in black space, focusing on a traveling space ship in which the main character, Sarai, and her three compatriots descend to a swirling planet in silence. The four women disembark on the new-to-them planet Mopu, and trek through the wild land to meet the handsome, long-term resident of the planet, Mr. Jael Dean, who will act as liaison for the missionaries and their work on behalf of the Empire to ‘civilize’ the native population of Mopu. However, tendrils of drama, distrust, and temptation unfurl as Jael Dean and Sarai grow closer and the women grapple with personal desires, devotion to their mission for the Empire, and the unfamiliar dangers of the native population and wilds of Mopu.

House of Women broaches familiar scenarios of jealousy, emerging sexuality, and colonialism in not-so-new ways, and its conclusion ultimately leaves more questions than it answers; but the experience of Goldstein’s work is decidedly rich due to Goldstein’s embodiment of the story through her stark, black and white art. This may not seem like such an original concept, seeing as how this is a graphic novel after all, but the illustrations within House of Women often serve less as illumination for a story Goldstein has written, than they serve as the story itself in many scenes.

Throughout the novel, it feels like Goldstein is with direct information. The reader is plunked unceremoniously onto this planet with Sarai and her fellow missionaries and dialogue for the most part focuses on tasks at hand—examining supplies, dealing with the native population, sharing enthusiasm for the Empire through mottos such as “Empire is family”—rather than developing backstory.

Goldstein offers the reader a few instances where the missionaries share pieces of their personal lives, like when three of the women share a rare relaxed moment while bathing in Mopu’s swampy waters and reflect on their home planets and loved ones they’ve lost or left behind. Or when Rhivka’s jealousy comes to a head and she finally unravels. But for the most part, direct information trickles rather than flows. While frustrating at times, this quiet structure helps build tension.

Also, where dialogue is sparse, the illustrations rise to fill in blank space, which is the brilliance of Goldstein’s work. The story of House of Women is really molded from its deceptively simple black and white drawings

The brunt of the story comes through the creepy, othering quality of negative space, as seen in moments where the reader encounters full pages of blackness at section breaks and scene changes, or where nearly blacked out cells highlight a sly facial expression of a character. The story is told in lines and curves that remarkably convey emotion, like the living, moving quality Goldstein manages to impart to water ripples and tree roots, or the brilliant use of harsh, raw brush strokes blotting out dialogue and background to signify screaming. The story is even told in the translation of characters’ personalities displayed in physical qualities; Kizzy’s optimistic, motherly traits are exhibited in a soft, round body and ever-smiling face (her eyes are rarely anything more than upside down u shapes), and Aphra’s stern, rule-keeper role is marked in her tall, lean body and angular, stone-like features.

On the surface these are simplistic tactics, but the whole of the work feels far from simple. While Goldstein’s art may not be unembellished in many ways, House of Women could not exist without its quiet vividness; her characters breathe from the page and in many ways the planet Mopu breathes, too. In the end, Goldstein’s beautifully executed artistic decisions, coupled with the story’s unanswered mysteries and dark sexuality, create a complex and compelling graphic novel.

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About Author

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Ashley Miller is a writer living in the suburbs of Chicago. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore and has had writing published in MiddleWestern Voice and Welter.

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