Book Review – THE UNDERTAKING OF LILY CHEN by Danica Novgorodoff

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica NovgorodoffThe Undertaking of Lily Chen Synopsis:

In “The Undertaking of Lily Chen,” Deshi, a young man struggling to make a life for himself in rural China, watches his life comes unhinged when he accidentally kills his older brother in a fight. His distraught parents send him on a hopeless journey to acquire a bride for his brother to marry posthumously so he doesn’t enter the next world alone–an ancient Chinese tradition with many modern adherents. Eligible female corpses are in short supply, however. When Deshi falls into company with a beautiful, angry, and single young woman named Lily, he sees a solution to his problems. The only hitch is Lily is still very much alive.

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. (FirstSecond)


The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff is the first graphic novel I have read, so I have no baseline from which to compare this work or my experience reading it. Having said that though, I did browse for quite some time before selecting this title as the graphic novel that would be my first.

The subject matter contained in many comics, evil doers and defenders of innocents that lurk in the shadows of society due to some terrible mutation caused by a chemical accident etc, have never really appealed to me. This title stood out to me as being something quite different from the many graphic novels on offer right now.

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The Undertaking of Lily Chen is described as a ‘literary’ graphic novel and Novgorodoff pulls no punches when delivering its message.

I respect the fact that she has chosen to highlight one of the more gruesome aspects of Chinese tradition that are unbelievably still enacted in the shadows today.

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Novgorodoff’s use of the water-colour medium and selective colour palettes have created imagery both beautiful and haunting. Note the clever evocation of a skull in the cover-art and the menacing yet ironic undertone it conveys. The trauma and emotional suffering of her characters is conveyed powerfully through their facial expressions and body language in strip style conversations and interactions – the wording (although a little more crass than I’d expected) is reasonably minimal. There is humour within this book but it’s of the darker slapstick variety.

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While the actual storyline is relatively simple, and at times predictable, what impressed me most was the emotion and meaning Novgorodoff conveys through her single page panoramas and colour washes. In particular, it is her depiction of the spirit elements (the interactions with those that have passed, whether real or imagined) that added real depth and gravitas to this work. Sparingly applied water colours created very evocative, ghostly imagery.

I also thought the use of traditional Chinese masks/symbols and an abacus to indicate chapter progression was a really nice touch.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff has taught me that much more can be conveyed in the graphical format than I expected, and that ‘reading’ a graphic novel can stimulate ones senses in a refreshing way that traditional novels cannot. This was my first, but will not be my last graphic novel – but I think their premise will need to be sufficiently original, innovative and literary in order to garner a place in my reading list.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

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BOOK DETAILS: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff ( Amazon | Book Depository | Booktopia | B&N )

Genre: Adventure, Graphical, Romance, Drama

This review counts towards my participation in the Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014 (Graphic Novel)

Author Information: Danica Novgorodoff is an artist, writer, graphic designer, horse wrangler, and marathon runner who lives in New York when she’s not traveling the world. Her books include A Late Freeze, Slow Storm, and Refresh, Refresh (included in Best American Comics 2011). She has been an artist in residence at the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Blue Mountain Center. Her fourth graphic novel, The Undertaking of Lily Chen, is forthcoming from First Second Books in March, 2014.

Other reviews of The Undertaking of Lily Chen : Lost in Books ; Butterfly Elephant ; Book Dragon

* My receiving an ebook copy of this title from First Second Books via NetGalley for review purposes in no way hindered the expression of my honest opinions in the above.