Graphic novel by Peter Kuper, discovered by my partner at Newport Public Library. A swift and pleasant read, with a thin story but a lush depiction of finding oneself falling in love with an initially foreign culture, ever deeper, by layers.
In this case, the main characters are an American couple, a man and a woman, visiting Oaxaca, Mexico, and its surrounding countryside (which includes the titular remains of pre-Colombian cities). She seeks to recapture something she feels she left behind during a youthful visit; he, recently laid off and feeling rootless, passively joins her. But while the woman’s search ostensibly drives the plot, I found the man’s story more interesting.
When they first arrive, he can’t speak the language (as she can), feels nervous about traveling anywhere, and is even scared of the feral dog that hangs around their rented house. Bit by bit, though, while his wife busies herself with her quest (a story Kuper renders in parallel), the man — without necessarily intending it — begins a months-long process of personal assimilation. He befriends Anglophonic immigrants, who start to tell him more about the area, making it suddenly less than completely alien to him. This leads to his asking their live-in housekeeper to teach him rudimentary Spanish, and this leads in turn to his getting to know the neighborhood’s life-long inhabitants. Months after his arrival, he drives like a native, has become politically active, and otherwise starts throwing down roots in the last place he expected to.
I think the author meant the woman’s story to seem at least as compelling, but I found it rather one-note, serving mainly to background the man’s transformation. But the book is short, and I enjoyed how it applied a breezily colorful art style to its take of personal-scale political and artistic awakenings in the faraway land next door. The afterword suggests that the book, while fictional in its particulars, springs from the American author’s own experiences learning to love Oaxaca, so it stands to reason that these would translate into its strongest elements. I liked it.