the undertaking of lily chen

I don’t read graphic novels on a regular basis, but I really should.  I was that kid who held onto picture book reading far past the time my peers gave it up.  I’m not saying I didn’t like chunky novels – I was reading those too.  But I leafed through the latest picture books in the children’s section and then went and grabbed a stack of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy novels in the same library visit. Now, when I pick up a graphic novel, I’m always pleased – I read it quickly and then go back and pore over the illustrations and let it all sink in.  Danica Novgorodoff’s The Undertaking of Lily Chen caught my attention with its delightfully dark cover art and unusual title.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

the undertaking of lily chen by danica novgorodoff book cover
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.

In parts of rural China, an old tradition of ghost marriages still persists. There are those who say that a man who dies unmarried cannot be happy in the afterlife unless his body is ‘married’ to a female corpse and buried with her.  When Deshi’s brother dies in an accident, his parents demand that he locate a ghost bride before the day of his brother’s funeral.  Deshi’s journey into the countryside to find a body is filled with a little too much adventure, and when he encounters Lily, a girl whose only aim is to flee her dead-end life, he wonders if he’s found a solution (for at least one of his problems).

Novgorodoff’s graphic novel is a morbidly funny book with a unique setting, a feisty heroine, and a backstory that delves into unfamiliar folk beliefs and stretches the imagination.  Deshi’s task is by turns tragic and comic, and his general flailing (and failing) at life, though a well-trodden storyline in adult lit, is revived in the uncommon setting.  Nevertheless, Lily and her family are the highlight of the book. The Chens’ simple life and unsubtle reactions paired with the delicacy of watercolors make for a striking combination. 

Speaking of the art… the palette is neutral, movement mostly implied, and the best part (in my opinion) are the landscape panels.  In all, The Undertaking of Lily Chen is an easy read with an understated art style that compliments the dark, wry humor.

Recommended for: fans of Neil Gaiman and those who like dark fiction and adult-level graphic novels.


Liviania said...

I've been meaning to read this one. First Second puts out really high quality titles.

Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies said...

Sounds great... and you had me at "for fans of Neil Gaiman"!

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