From the moment that I saw the stunningly morbid cover of Danica Novgorodoff’s The Undertaking of Lily Chen, I knew I had to read it.
It’s your classic story: a young rapscallion gets into a harmless argument and accidentally kills his older brother (who, let’s face it, was a bit of a twat). Parents insist that young man find beloved brother a wife with whom to spend eternity (or you know, he could end up in prison for murder). Boy goes a hunting, desecrates some graves, finds himself an unsatisfied matchmaker all around. Until she comes into view. Lily Chen, the perfect ghost bride. Too bad she still has a heartbeat.
I’d love to be able to describe The Undertaking of Lily Chen in such a light and bouncy term as ‘fun’, but alas, that’s not going to happen. Though Novgorodoff does infuse her tale with a certain undertone of humor, the overlying tone is much more morose. I mean, let’s get real people, this is the story about a young man, whose parents obviously favored his brother, looking for a dead woman to spend eternity with said brother (who he didn’t like anyway). There’s all sorts of messed up family dynamics, and we haven’t even gotten to the Chens. Lily lives in a tiny country village where her family is about to lose their home unless they can come up with the money to renew their lease. The best idea her dad can come up with? Marry her off to the skeezy businessman in town. It’s no wonder these two crazy kids just want out of things. If only they were looking to go about it the same way.
The Undertaking of Lily Chen is a brutal, weird, and absolutely fascinating graphic novel that is nearly impossible to put down. Luckily, it’s a quick enough read that if you have an hour or two, you won’t need to. It has trippy dream sequences, soothsayers, and the ghosts of the recent dead. It’s art and story are this strange nod to both the beauties and horrors of Chinese culture—a clashing of old traditions against the modern era.
Ultimately, despite the blood, the betrayals, and the absolute messed-up-ness of the whole thing, The Undertaking of Lily Chen is a story of hope and a story of love. It tackles love of family, and love of home, love of money, and love of a dream, and of course, flat out love. It’s bittersweet with a knife’s sharp edge, twisted and quirky in a very unique way.
That stated, I didn’t love The Undertaking of Lily Chen so much as I found it intriguing. Lily Chen herself was so annoying I was on the edge of my seat forever just waiting for Deshi to pull the plug already, but Deshi himself was so run down and sad a character it was hard to really root for him. I get that sometimes two crazy sad people find each other and it works, but at the same time, I find it hard to emotionally invest myself. Still, for the time investment and the sheer graceful horror of the art, this one was certainly worth it.
Novgorodoff’s art reflects her story perfectly in that I still don’t quite know how I feel about it. My gut reaction is that I don’t care for the style with its wobbly lines and uncomfortable looking bodies, and yet, the sweeping watercolor backgrounds and elements capture my eye such that I do not want to look away. Stunning when used together with her foreground style in panels, her watercolors are even more striking on their own. Indeed, her watercolor work is both haunting and delicate, bringing a quality to The Undertaking of Lily Chen that could not be conveyed through words alone.
Novgorodoff’s detail work throughout also adds her unique touch. We see the days tick down on the abacus as chapters go by, while Deshi’s mother works to sew the perfect dress for her dead son’s ghost bride. Overall, it is beautifully thought out book.
Sometimes it’s those stories we don’t know how to feel about that stick with us best and I don’t see Lily Chen slipping to the back of my mind anytime soon. I do have one certain thought, that I’ll be looking to get my hands on some more of Novgorodoff’s work in the future.