Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen

by Andy Wolverton

The Undertaking of Lily Chen, Danica Novgorodoff (First Second)

LilyChen1Horrific, beautiful, haunting, funny, disquieting, touching, suspenseful, spiritual. These are all words that come to mind when describing Danica Novgorodoff’s wonderful new graphic novel, The Undertaking of Lily Chen. Effectively conveying any of these descriptions in a single work is a remarkable achievement. Effectively conveying all of them is nothing short of miraculous.

In the book’s introduction, Novgorodoff – whose previous books include Slow Storm, Refresh, Refresh — quotes from a July 26, 2007 article from The Economist, which describes the practice of “ghost marriages” in areas of rural China. The idea is that at their deaths, husbands and wives are meant to share a grave, so when a man dies unmarried, his family must urgently find a female corpse to be his bride in the grave. And as in most cases of supply-and-demand, a black market emerges to help desperate people.

LilyChen2As The Undertaking of Lily Chen begins, we meet Deshi Li, a young man who accidentally kills his brother during a struggle. Since the brother is unmarried, Deshi’s parents expect him to find his brother a “bride corpse” within one week’s time. Meanwhile, in small village, Mr. and Mrs. Chen try to marry off their daughter Lily to an older local businessman. Lily will have none of it and runs away from home. Of course it’s only a matter of time before Deshi and Lily meet, each planning on using the other for very different ends. The graphic novel’s seven main sections follow Deshi’s and Lily’s different quests over seven days, each of which increases in tension, suspense, and often hilarity.

Novgorodoff achieves such a delicate balance of the bizarre and the beautiful by combining odd, often awkward cartoonish characters with breathtaking watercolors. The artwork makes the scenes of rural China wonderfully exotic, yet almost otherworldly, as if the journey itself takes us to a place that can’t be found on this earth. In fact, the entire book is a study in contrasts: Chinese cultural traditions vs. twenty-first-century thinking, unrestricted freedom vs. rigid boundaries, and, of course, life vs. death. Lily is so irreverent and full of life, how could you ever for a moment consider her as a corpse bride? Even the minor characters contain more than enough depth to warrant their own stories.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen contains many supernatural elements, certainly enough to satisfy such fans, but the story is by and large grounded in the real world, making it approachable for readers who love a bit of the fantastic and those who prefer stories set in the real world. Again, Novgorodoff’s balance is superb. This is a wonderful, beautiful book. Please don’t miss it.

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Be sure to check out Danica Novgorodoff’s works, as well as other First Second titles:

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