Saturday, 12 April 2014

'The Undertaking of Lily Chen' by Danica Novgorodoff

The Undertaking of Lily Chen starts with an except from the Economist, about a Chinese practice of performing ‘ghost weddings’ for someone who had died single, so they would not spend eternity alone, leading to a spate of body snatching and even murder.

The story starts with a fight – we know nothing about the two young men or what they are fighting over – ending tragically, with one of them pushed into the path of an oncoming car, and killed instantly. As the other runs home, shown in wordless panels, the right hand pages tell in words alone, the 2000 year old story of warlord Caocao, whose young son died before marrying, and as he cries ‘Bring me the body of a woman’, the young man’s mother is shown, as she makes the same request of her youngest son.

The plot is the younger brother’s search for a ‘bride’ for his brother, and the girl he meets, who is fleeing from a marriage she is being forced into for economic reasons.

Artist Danica Novgorodoff’s beautiful watercolours often look like Chinese painting – abstract and painterly, pigment floated onto water, bleeding and running in the grain of the paper, calligraphic brushstokes and earthy colours. The characters are charming and engaging, and I found myself entwined in the story, fearing that Danica would not flinch from a tragic ending, always hoping the protagonists would find happiness.

Her colour palette is limited yet rich, her line energetic and expressive. She has a personal style that is hers alone, and does not ape anything I have seen. Her characters may not be consistently drawn, or proportioned, but this does nothing to diminish the power of the tale, and is more expression and style than lack of technical skill.

The dialogue is confident, naturalistic and economic. Danica moves the story along with seemingly incidental dialogue, but all along we are being pulled into the emotional web she has woven. Lily, innocent and full of vitality, wins the readers’ heart, and Dashiel, taciturn and burdened with the events that have befallen, is just as engaging and believable.

The book is dedicated to Danica’s grandparents, and two of the characters are named after them, Eugene and Ellen. Maybe Danica has Chinese blood, as she certainly has an emotional connection with the landscape and people portrayed.

Author Danica Novgorodoff calls herself an artist rather than a comic book writer, yet, despite such stunning artwork, maybe her greatest talent is as a story teller, eloquently sucking us into her world with a few flicks of her brush.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See

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