Book Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

If I had a signature style, it would best be described as “delightfully morbid.”

The Undertaking of Lily Chen was totally my style.

Dreamy, watercolor artwork. Check. Strong storytelling. Check. Dual meaning and a sense of irony. Check.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff
Published: March 25th 2014 by First Second/Macmillan
ISBN: 9781596435865
Find: GoodreadsAmazon | Library
Source: local library
Genre: young adult contemporary, graphic novel

Synopsis: 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.the undertaking of lily chen

My thoughts: Moody. Morbid. Macabre. There’s no hiding the darkness at the heart of this graphic novel. The Undertaking of Lily Chen is not going to be to everybody’s taste, that’s for sure. But it’s probably my favorite graphic novel that I’ve ever read.

The story is about a young man, Deshi, who feels responsible for his brother’s death, and is entrusted by his parents to ensure his brother doesn’t spend eternally alone by finding him a corpse bride, a custom still practiced in some parts of rural China. On his journey he crosses paths with a young woman who is anxious to escape her rural town and arranged marriage. She believes she is accompanying him to Beijing, but Deshi sees Lily as a solution to his problem.

While the creepy storyline is what piqued my interest, I fell in love with the dreamy art. The panels are beautiful watercolors and pen and ink drawings, and the style is unique. In muted tones with a lavish flair, the characters come alive.

Sequences of wordless panels draw the reader into the story.  Not only is the imagery gorgeous, the layout and design are so easy to read. I highly recommend this as a introduction to graphic novels for readers who are  curious but feel intimidated by the skill required to read superhero comic or graphic novels with detailed panels. Short segments with clever titles give the reader breaks and clearly signpost changes in point of view. I love not only the idea that sparked the story and the art, but also the execution and the interplay of both elements.

The story is told in sparse dialogue without any exposition, and the art conveys the mood. The language and art are a blend of Chinese culture, ancient and modern. With suspense and interest, I followed Deshi and Lily’s journey, and was still surprised by the end. There were touching moments and even amusing scenes to balance the dark subject matter.

This will be a graphic novel I add to my personal collection, and I’m also going to see if I can get my hands on Danica Novgordoff’s previous titles. If you are a fan of dark and irreverent stories, check out The Undertaking of Lily Chen.

Recommended for fans of: This is best for older teens, as there is some colorful language and brief depictions of sex. I’d suggest Flight of Angels by Rebecca Guay, et al (my review) or Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger (my review) to readers who enjoyed this.

Second opinions:

Publisher’s Weekly: “Novgordoff uses a flat visual style that gives the characters an iconic feeling as she captures the tensions between new and old traditions in Chinese society. Although the book is uneven, the story is striking and unusual overall.”

Comic Book Resources: “In certain sections, she has sequences of silent or near-silent panels, in which the landscape, color atmospheric watercolor ink washes take over the story, and these are lovely. The passages of silence really add beauty and pathos, and further define the setting and the shape of the story as a whole. Novgorodoff’s color work is also clever, with certain passages in near-monotone to emphasize a mood or feeling.”

Nafizia at Cuddlebuggery: “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.”

Shara Hardeson in Horn Book Review: “Aspects of modern-day China collide with ancient Chinese traditions in both content and artistic style. Deshi and Lily struggle to reconcile their own personal aspirations with their responsibilities to family traditions. Novgorodoff underscores this struggle in her art. She uses soft watercolor brushwork for rolling landscapes and strong black ink outlines for mountain-scapes effectively calling to mind classical Chinese painting techniques, while the presence of modern technology, contemporary clothing, and typical comic book onomatopoeia contrast with that aesthetic. The grim subject matter is skillfully balanced with keen humor, genuine sentiment, and humanizing struggle.”

Kristen at The Book Monsters: “The illustrations in this graphic novel are breathtaking. I love the watercolors and the design of the characters. It’s interesting to set the world more modern while dealing with such an old tradition. I loved seeing Deshi struggle internally with what his family has asked of him and his own conscience. Lily is a stubborn and beautiful woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. She doesn’t know what she has gotten herself into by begging Deshi to take her along. Her family is on the hunt for her as well, giving the graphic novel a bit of a desperate edge to it.”

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