Published by First Second on March 25th, 2014
Genres: Paranormal Fantasy, Young Adult
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In The Undertaking of Lily Chen, Deshi, a young man struggling to make a life for himself in rural China, watches his life comes unhinged when he accidentally kills his older brother in a fight. His distraught parents send him on a hopeless journey to acquire a bride for his brother to marry posthumously so he doesn't enter the next world alone—an ancient Chinese tradition with many modern adherents. Eligible female corpses are in short supply, however. When Deshi falls into company with a beautiful, angry, and single young woman named Lily, he sees a solution to his problems. The only hitch is Lily is still very much alive. Danica Novgorodoff, author of Slow Storm and Refresh, Refresh, brings her distinctive voice and gorgeous, moody watercolors to this wry, beautiful, and surprising literary graphic novel.
Danica Novgorodoff brings to watercoloured life the story of Deshi whose unmarried brother dies under suspicious circumstances and Lily who walks boldly to her own destiny. To understand the novel, you have to understand the old Chinese custom of ghost brides:
“Parts of rural China are seeing a burgeoning market for female corpses, the result of the reappearance of a strange custom called “ghost marriages.” Chinese tradition demands that husbands and wives always share a grave…”
Deshi is given a sum of money and told to not return home until he has found a suitable wife for his dead brother. He finds a ghost marriage-broker but all the brides he offers up for consideration are a bit too decayed for Deshi’s taste. Then he sees Lily and decides she is perfect. The only flaw in his plan? She still has a pulse but that is not too troublesome a detail as Deshi can easily remedy that.
Meanwhile Lily is having troubles of her own. Stuck in a backwater village with no prospects except an inevitable marriage to a pock-faced acquaintance, Lily is fast realizing that her only way to escape the drudgery in her future is to flee. And Deshi presents an excellent opportunity to escape. So Deshi, Lily and Deshi’s mule find themselves on a journey ostensible to Beijing though Deshi has more sinister plans than Lily is aware of.
The graphic novel is charming and careful not to misappropriate culture. The text itself is sparse and not overly stylized. This works well with the art which is breathtaking for its softness and detail. What I love about the book is the unspoken story that plays out in the art but is not textualized. Most of the humour is subtle and tightly interwoven with the art. For example, Lily’s father sets out with a group of ten or so men in order to find Lily and bring her back. During the journey, the reader sees the creative ways the men find to leave the company. There is never a mention of the gradually decreasing number of men in the text and this adds another layer to the reading experience. A fun layer that affords unexpected chuckles. Another thing I absolutely loved is how at different moments in the book, Deshi’s mother is shown sewing the bridal dress for the ghost bride. Each consecutive drawing shows her progress and is a silent reminder of Deshi’s primary mission.
Lily is a major reason I liked the book. She is such a fun, irreverent character, completely unaware of the danger she is walking into and making impulse decisions that change her life drastically. She is a good foil to Deshi’s rather staid character and I must say, a bit more convincing than he is.
I enjoyed this novel immensely and if graphic novels are your thing, well, even if they are not, you should definitely give The Undertaking of Lily Chen a try. The art is beautiful, the story is humorous as well as dramatic at the appropriate moments. Strongly recommended.