The Undertaking of Lily Chen is the newest graphic novel from Danica Novgorodoff, artist, writer, graphic designer, horse wrangler and marathon runner. While The Undertaking of Lily Chen is visually stunning, the brief excerpt from an article in The Economist from 2007 that inspired this book is equally stunning. The article detailed "ghost marriages," a strange custom started in the year 208 AD by the warlord Cao Cao, reappearing in rural China that was also accounting for a burgeoning market in female corpses. If a man died unmarried, sometimes his parents would procure the body of a woman, hold a "wedding," then bury the couple together so that the man would not have to go alone into the afterlife. While marriage brokers were most often called on to find corpse brides, hospital mortuaries, funeral parlors, body snatchers and murderers were also hired...
The Undertaking of Lily Chen begins with a prologue set on a military base in China with a fight between Deshi, a guard, and his belligerent brother. A fight breaks out and, without intending to, Deshi watches as his brother is hit and killed by a jeep. When Deshi returns home to tell his parents of Wei's death, it's clear that he was the favored, first born son. In tears, Deshi's mother hands him a sack of money and tells him to find a bride for Wei. He packs up their donkey with supplies as she begins to cut and sew the red bridal gown. What I most love about The Undertaking of Lily Chen, besides the superb illustrations accented with occasionally gorgeous watercolors that make you pause as well as intricate spot art at the start of each chapter, is the idea that this story of the search for a corpse bride in contemporary China could have played out in so many different ways.
We first see Lily, and only child, at home with her parents watching a soap opera on television as they learn that they are about to lose their land to the Dragon Head Mining Company. Deshi, having no luck with the matchmaker, has hired a "special projects" man to find him a corpse bride and they are in a remote spot, digging up a grave. Things go wrong for both Deshi and Lily and they find themselves on the run and running into each other.
As a character, Lily fluctuates between being a pain in the ass and a badass. Convinced that a better life awaits her in Beijing, she attaches herself to Deshi, who has a knife behind his back and had been contemplating her death. The two travel toward their destinations, Deshi on the lookout for a corpse in every possible place along the way, more than once returning to the idea murdering Lily.
Convinced that his daughter has been kidnapped, Lily's father rounds up the men of the village and tries to find her. The grave robber, intent on finishing the job he has been paid for, is on the trail of Lily and Deshi as well. Finally, Wei's ghost follows the couple, his presence and request for a wife growing stronger every day. Climactic confrontations with Lily's father and the grave robber lead Deshi and Lily to make a rash decision, spurred on by the cryptic words of a fortune teller they encountered in the countryside. The ending of The Undertaking of Lily Chen is every bit as powerful as the ideas that began the story, leaving the reader contemplating, pondering, and vividly recalling this magnificent graphic novel long after the final page has been read and the covers closed.
Readers who enjoyed The Undertaking of Lily Chen should not miss Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, who called The Undertaking of Lily Chen, "Beautiful, haunting, and utterly human." Of the graphic novel, Caldecott Award Winner Brian Selznick said, "A vast, dangerous tale . . . Novgorodoff has created a world filled with ghosts, regrets, dreams, and love."
Source: Review Copy