Lee Soyeon is a divorced woman in her 50s who works as a cleaner in a Seoul apartment building. Her life isn’t easy. Her bosses are mean, and her thirtysomething son, who still lives at home, is a wastrel who never lifts a finger to help her. Most painful of all, her boyfriend, Jongseok, another feckless loser, has recently revealed that for the last three years he has been two-timing her – and yet, no matter how hard she tries, she cannot give him up. In bed at night, her phone lies beside her like some miniature coffin, a night-time bearer of bad tidings to whose bleeps, messages and alerts she remains cruelly addicted.
But there are other kinds of light in this darkness, as well. Her friends, Myeong-ok, Yeonsun and Yeonjeong, have love lives almost as complicated as her own, and there’s solidarity in talking to them (they like to moan). And her character tends towards optimism, even in the bleakest moments. She loves to go out to afternoon dances, jiving with one man after another, and scoffing at them all (why are middle-aged men so hopeless? So gauche, so unstylish, so unaware?).
Pretending to be 10 years younger than she really is, it’s an old game of hers to see if she can persuade these “chumps” to pay her bill. The prospect of loneliness may loiter ghoulishly at the edge of such times – what would she do without Jongseok, she wonders, as she makes her way home – but they give her both the release and the dignity she craves. She is alive, and where there is life, there is hope.
Yeonsun and co are the stars of Moms, a graphic novel by Yeong-shin Ma that was published in his native Korea in 2015 – and when I say “stars”, I mean it. What a remarkable, joyous book. Our culture, like his, is hell-bent on rendering middle-aged women invisible, and yet here are four of them, their lives not only filling every single page of this comic, but brought to us with such intimacy.
Ma, who is in his 30s, had help with Moms, having based it on a notebook he asked his mother to keep (she didn’t hold back), and thanks to this, we don’t only hang about inside her apartment, we’re also in her head and heart, experiencing the full churn of her emotions, which are no less intense than those of the young – and sometimes much more so.
Ma’s mother has given her son a great gift by helping him to understand that older women do not suddenly put aside longing and desire, jealousy and rage. Their bodies may be weary sometimes, and their faces may no longer carry the bloom of youth (though this is so often replaced, if only the world could see it, by something richer and more beautiful). But such things have no effect whatsoever on their hearts, which may still be broken – cracked in two like a hen’s egg on the edge of an old frying pan.
• Moms by Yeong-shin Ma is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£22.50)