Monday, September 08, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #251: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

It can be thrilling to see a creator entirely shift focus and discover something new. I reviewed Danica Novgorodoff's first two full-length graphic novels a few years back -- Slow Storm, an original story about horses and forest fires, men and women; and Refresh, Refresh, about war and the home front and boys who thought they were men, with a long complicated path from literary short story to screenplay to comics -- and thought they both had real strengths, but told more than they showed and were overly burdened by their foregrounded themes.

Novgorodoff is back after five years -- it take a long time to write and draw nearly five hundred pages of comics -- with The Undertaking of Lily Chen, a new original that almost seems to be by an entirely different woman than the earlier two books. The art is lighter and brighter, with Novgorodoff's lovely watercolors as backgrounds or strategically placed in her panels to give the sense of a Chinese painting, and figures that are much looser and more lively, just this side of rubber-hose and full of energy and action.  And the story is more matter-of-fact, flowing out organically on the page with only a few captions -- and it's set in a very different milieu from those first two books, among different people, with very different worldviews and lives.

Lily Chen is mostly the story of Deshi Li, the put-upon second son of a successful businessman somewhere in rural north China. After a drunken escapade kills his golden boy older brother, Wei, Deshi is sent off by his hateful parents: he must find a freshly dead young woman to be married to Wei, so the favored son can enter Heaven with an appropriate wife.

Lily Chen, on the other hand, has her own unpleasant parents to deal with: they've just realized that they're at the end of the thirty-year lease on their home, and the only way to extend it is to marry young Lily off to the slimy land agent Mr Peng.

After Deshi's original plans fall through, he meets Lily, who claims to be heading to Bejing to find her rich doctor cousin. And she would be perfect as a bride for his brother -- if only she weren't so alive. Along the way, Deshi and Lily run into a host of other characters, nearly all of whom are working one scheme or another: if they traveled much farther, it would be a picaresque.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen is as serious as Novgorodoff's previous books, but it's funnier and slier at the same time: it's full of characters who all have their own aims and delusions and plans and dreams, and all fully intend to live up to all of them. It's big and bold and exciting and real and does all of the big important things her earlier books strived for, but does it with a light touch and a wry smirk at the same time.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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