‘The Undertaking of Lily Chen’
By Danica Novgorodoff. First Second; 432 pgs., $29.99.
We have all known a cruel person who was deemed perfect by their parents, has possibly seen a psychic and maybe has even fallen in love to a point where you say, “I dreamt I was enormous.” This is the beauty of Danica Novgorodoff’s “The Undertaking of Lily Chen.”
Readers are informed from page one that some people in rural China are once again organizing “ghost marriages,” an old custom where a dead bachelor is “married” to a corpse bride. In order to do this, you need, of course, a dead woman. In “The Undertaking,” this is how Deshi Li meets the love — or the opportunity — of his life, Lily Chen. As you can imagine, things get, well, troublesome. And terrifying.
Full-page watercolors stand next to tiered action panels as the corpse hunt continues. Through color washes and line illustrations, Deshi Li travels through homes, graveyards, mountain paths and waterways. The book reads like a fable or fairy tale, dealing in dreams and love — states that are difficult to define yet happen to every one of us.
At one point, Deshi Li and Lily meet shady drifters trolling over oracle bones, ancient shells used for forecasting the future. For money, the woman offers to read Lily’s fortune. It feels like a hoax, yet when the huckster closes with “The price of love is high, but pain, we sell it cheap,” it’s difficult not to believe her.
Reading “The Undertaking” brought me back a year or two, to when I attended the University of Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture (I highly recommend doing this, even if you are years out of college). One of the most informative sessions was on “The Walking Dead” — not the television show but the graphic novel series, and I’m not bringing it up because of the corpse/zombie connection. I’m bringing it up because the academics, who have devoted their graduate studies and post-doctoral careers to graphic novels, made one point clear: A book of illustrations with a fictional story can be an important way to see — and critique — the society we live in.
In Novgorodoff’s tale, there is the world the characters are in control of, personalities they use to push against the world at large. The borders are distinct from the watercolor nebulousness of nature, treasured fantasies, the unknown and the historical context each of us has the blessing (or the curse) to be born into. This dynamic dichotomy is another way to look at our own position in life.
How do we feel about where we are? What is expected of us? Novgorodoff’s drawings invite you to fill in the thoughts and questioning behind emotional turmoil and decide how to navigate the rugged terrain from there.
A writer, painter and photographer originally from Louisville, Danica Novgorodoff currently lives in Brooklyn. She is visiting her hometown this week and will be reading from and signing “The Undertaking” at Carmichael’s Bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Ave., on Friday at 7 p.m.