“The Undertaking of Lily Chen” by Danica Novgorodoff has a title with a double meaning: “undertaking” as in an important or difficult task or venture, and also “undertaking” as it relates to funerals and the procedures of burial. The plot is driven by the folk custom of “corpse brides,” which Novgorodoff explains via an epigraph quote from “The Economist” and then expands with a Chinese history as the story begins. The hero, Deshi, needs a female body to provide a bride for his dead brother. Driven by family duty and guilt, his thoughts turn to murder in the first moment he sees the titular Lily Chen.
The prologue is a small tour de force of efficient and emotionally potent exposition. The opening hook is excellent, establishing the hero and the central conflict quickly and suspensefully. In this section, Novgorodoff uses facing pages in alternating prose and pictures to weave together past and present. The pacing for this section is perfect, and Novgorodoff’s prose is poetic, making the command “Find me the body of a woman” feel like the moment when the music comes together.
The introduction of the heroine in the following pages is lighter, and deftly sets up a character contrast between Lily and Deshi: one defiant and angry, the other obedient and desperate. Novgorodoff reserves the bulk of the color and humor in her cast for Lily, who is the life of the party with her sass and zest for living. Her hulking peasant father also provides comic relief, especially in slapstick hijinks that result when he assembles the village men to assist him in his own mission. Underneath even these more lively characters, though, there is a thread of melancholy in the circumstances of their lives. No one is happy when the story starts, and that’s the fuel for the plot engine. It’s primarily through characterization that Novogodoff successfully balances the dark themes and events of “The Undertaking of Lily Chen” with some brightness.
Novgorodoff’s facial expressions effectively convey Deshi’s desperation. Even though it’s by any measures pretty vile that he’s willing to kill a random woman – and tries not just once but several times, he still comes across as being sympathetic because Novgorodoff writes him young, foolish and in a terrible bind.
One character doesn’t add up: the grave robber, Song. He turns out to either some kind of personal code about finishing his missions, which is confusing because otherwise he seems like a man who would be happy to take the money and run.
The plot is structured around the variously intersecting paths of the characters as they fulfill their individual quests: Deshi to find his brother a corpse bride, Lily to go to Beijing to escape from poverty and marriage to a man she dislikes, Lily’s father to find his daughter, Song to fulfill his verbal contract. There is also a flashback about Deshi’s brother Wei that is foreshadowed in the prologue and is timed to increase sympathy and the reader’s knowledge of Deshi. The major plot twist can probably be guessed by the reader. None of these plot moves is anything new or unexpected, but Novgorodoff pulls off them off with a sure hand.
Novgorodoff’s artwork has a manga-like contrast between the characters and the backgrounds, with far more detail and beauty lavished on the backgrounds than on the character’s bodies.
In certain sections, she has sequences of silent or near-silent panels, in which the landscape, color atmospheric watercolor ink washes take over the story, and these are lovely. The passages of silence really add beauty and pathos, and further define the setting and the shape of the story as a whole. Novgorodoff’s color work is also clever, with certain passages in near-monotone to emphasize a mood or feeling.
The ending silent sequence is satisfying, especially with the splashes of an orange and yellow sunset firing up the death-like gray ground. The ending sequence is a short and complex melody, with undertones of anger, loss and sadness but with a final impression of relief and hard-won triumph and freedom.