Comic Solutions

Book Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 10.10.51 AMThe Undertaking of Lily Chen
Danica Novgorodoff
First Second
March 2014

Deshi, a young man in rural China, is trying to make a life for himself. But it all comes apart when he accidentally kills his older brother in a fight. Sticking to old customs his parents send him off on a journey to find his brother a ghost bride, so he doesn’t enter into the next world alone. But female corpses seem to be in short supply. And then…Deshi meets Lily, who would be absolutely perfect. Except that she’s still alive.  And maybe, just maybe…she’s more perfect for someone else living than someone dead.

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

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