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The Undertaking of Lily Chen Paperback – March 25, 2014
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*Starred Review* In contemporary China, Deshi accidentally kills his older brother, Wei, by shoving him in front of a moving jeep, and his furious mother, calling on the ancient tradition of ghost marriage, demands that he find the unmarried Wei a corpse bride, a recently deceased single woman who will accompany him in the afterlife. Guilt-ridden Deshi seeks the help of a matchmaker, a grave robber, and a hospital attendant before he runs into stubborn, spirited Lily, who would make a perfect bride if she weren’t so alive. Is Deshi prepared to commit murder to fulfill his mother’s request? Or will he find a way to give his parents some peace while preserving his own happiness? Novgorodoff’s exaggerated, cartoonish figures appear against spare, inky backgrounds resembling traditional Chinese landscape paintings, as if history and heritage loom over Deshi and Lily as they make their way forward to their futures. Deshi’s grief and guilt, meanwhile, are hauntingly, gorgeously rendered in smoky, aqueous watercolor washes, which subtly suggest a gaping mouth and face hovering over Lily and spilling between panels. It’s a simple, darkly comic story, but Novgorodoff’s artful juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary imagery elevates it to eloquently echo a deeper, all-encompassing tension between past and progress. --Sarah Hunter
“This stunning and intriguing graphic novel takes the reader on a brother's journey to find a bride for his deceased sibling . . . Everything about this graphic novel is striking. It is not easily forgotten.” ―VOYA
“If you haven't read any of Danica Novgorodoff's books, you're missing out.” ―USA Today
“Beautiful, haunting, and utterly human.” ―Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese
“A vast, dangerous tale… Novgorodoff has created a world filled with ghosts, regrets, dreams, and love.” ―Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret
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The story follows a young man, Deshi, who has accidentally killed his older brother in a fight. His mother and father are extremely distraught, to the point of wishing that the younger son (Deshi) had died instead. They demand that the young man find his dead brother a corpse bride (a young, dead Chinese woman) so that they can be wed and their eldest son will not have to go into death alone. However, dead young women are in short supply in China.
Lily is the only daughter of a farmer. Her father is going to marry her off to pay their debts, but Lily is fiery and disagreeable. She wants to make her own choices and live her own life. She flees her home and stumbles into Deshi. Lily could be the answer to all of Deshi’s problems...if only she weren’t so….alive.
There are so many interesting aspects to this story. The idea of a corpse bride is fascinating. Basically young dead Chinese men can be wed and married to a young dead Chinese woman so that they don’t have to venture into death alone. It is an antiquated practice that has been finding resurgence in China.
The family that Deshi comes from lives in town and has broken the one child only law. Despite this they are very traditional and truly see their second child as a “backup” and not as useful as their eldest.
Lily’s family is a farming family. They have not broken the one child only law, but really could use more help on the farm. They are much more modern in viewpoint than Deshi’s family. However when push comes to shove Lily still has very few rights as a Chinese woman.
Looking at the contrast between the two families is interesting and fascinating. However there is a more personal story here as well. Deshi is obviously in mourning over his brother’s death. He is torn between trying to do right by his family and brother and trying to do what he feels is right as far as Lily is concerned. Both the main characters are fascinating. The culture is intriguing. The whole thing is an excellent read.
The illustration style is very distinct; if you have read other graphic novels by Danica this is more of the same. I am not a huge fan; I tend to like my illustration with a bit more detail and definition. This style is more simplistic, although there are some beautiful watercolor backdrops throughout. So, I would recommend taking a look through the book and seeing if the style appeals to you.
Overall a fascinating graphic novel that was interesting to read and highly entertaining. I really enjoyed it. This gives an interesting look into Chinese culture while still providing a story that is engaging and heartwarming. Recommended to those who love graphic novels.
I have to admit upon initial reading I was somewhat disappointed in the book. I loved the premise of a young man trying to find a bride for his dead brother and ending up with a live woman. But the journey to get there often felt uneasy. There were bumpy roads and falls and turns that just left me feeling lost at times. The main character, Deshi, often felt like a cardboard cutout who merely followed his parents wishes. Lily though, is headstrong, able to stand up for herself and is strangely...strange at many points. But upon reflection I think what Danica has done, is captured life as it really is. We get so used to reading books where the twists and turns make sense that when we come upon one that reflects reality, we feel strangely out of sorts and unsure of what to do. We want that clear path to the finish line! But life...rarely does that for us. And the character of Deshi, while somewhat simple, reflects the upbringing and culture that he lives in. It seems strange to my eyes because I’ve been taught to stand up for myself, but a character that just follows his parents desires? It’s...strangely unsettling and yet entirely real.
The illustrations though, I am somewhat disappointed in. The very first image that we see on the cover is absolutely gorgeous. Watercolor sunset, mountains, and strong figures waiting to take us on a journey. And the background images throughout the book reflect this same style. Watercolor washes that reflect the style and look of Chinese art brushes that are breathtaking and gorgeous. The characters though are somewhat unsettling to me. There’s a heavy black line that outlines them, to make them stand out, but at the same time separate them from the background. They are also colored in more of a thick acrylic paint rather than the lighter watercolors that the rest of the illustrations have. For me, it makes the characters seem like they aren’t really a part of the story. They’re just floating in it or green screened in. There are times though, when there is a softer line, and the characters have gentle watercolor washes over them where they become a part of the story that the background is telling, especially towards the end of the story. The characters and the background become part of the same story. If the entire book was like this, it would be perfect. As it is...it’s just a bit uneasy at times.
This is one of those books that just puts me at unease. I want to like it and I want to recommend it and yet...there’s something holding me back almost. I will give the book 3.5 out of 5 stars and would say that fans of Richard Sala would greatly enjoy it. As for me, I believe I will give it a few more reads and let it grow on me.
ARC provided by Gina at First Second