Published by First Second on March 25th, 2014
Genres: contemporary, graphic novel
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In The Undertaking of Lily Chen, Deshi, a hapless young man living in northern China, is suddenly expelled from ordinary life when his brother dies in an accident. Holding Deshi responsible for his brother’s death, his parents send him on a mission to acquire a corpse bride to accompany his brother into the afterlife, in accordance with an ancient Chinese tradition that has many modern adherents. Eligible dead girls are in short supply, however. When Deshi falls into company with a young--and single--woman named Lily, he sees a solution to his problems. The only hitch is that willful, tart-tongued Lily is still very much alive. As Deshi and Lily adventure through a breathtaking mountain landscape, meeting a host of eccentric characters and dangerous adversaries along the way, Deshi just can’t decide whether to kiss the girl or to kill her. 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.
What the shit did I just read? No, seriously. Though this book had a plain ol’ linear narrative, it was still one of the oddest books I have ever had the pleasure (not sure about that) of reading. The artwork is absolutely stunning too. More on that in a bit, but honestly, how I am supposed to review this? I have been putting off this review as long as I possibly could because I just do not know what to say or how to interpret it. Let’s try.
The book is freaking morbid. Like really morbid. And there is this odd tone to it that I still can’t figure out if I liked or not. I think it takes a special kind of person to really love this book, and that’s the thing I really love about First Second. They are pushing boundaries and doing things that other publishers should be considering. First Second is about having a fresh voice, and marketing things that are not the norm and maybe not super marketable to begin with. AND I LOVE IT.
I classified this as a contemporary, but to be completely honest, I have no idea what the hell it is. There are some horror elements, a feeling that it’s a bit historical, but ultimately contemporary is where I think it goes. You see, there is this guy and his brother dies and he feels responsible for it. Apparently if you are a dude, dying single in China is a bad thing. So he goes on a hunt for a corpse bride with a grave robber. But none of the corpses are fresh enough, so he finds this beautiful girl and hems and haws over murdering her because he is that desperate.
There are some really great family moments in this book with Lily and her father. The ending is bittersweet and I may have shed a tear or two. Frankly, this book will never be a favorite and I can’t exactly pinpoint why, it just didn’t have the voice and tone that ends up making a book a 5 star one for me. But I do think it’s valuable, that it has merit, that it was enjoyable. And like I said, the art? Whoa. Rather than try to explain the brilliant watercolors and style, here are some examples.