The title of The Undertaking of Lily Chen has a double meaning, just as the mountain peaks and valleys on the cover of the book represent the landscape while forming a trompe l’oeil skull. The first meaning is entirely dark — Deshi, a young man who feels, and perhaps is, responsible for the death of his older and better-loved brother, is saddled with the gruesome task of finding a corpse bride to accompany his brother’s body to the afterlife. Even with the help of an unsavory grave robber, his lack of success leads him to decide that he must abduct and kill a living girl to satisfy his brother’s ghost. Lily Chen just happens to be the girl that shows up at just the unfortunate moment. But Deshi’s not really a bad guy — he’s just confused! His family loyalty is being tested! His confusion is only heightened by Lily’s personality, at once headstrong and endearing, self-important and sweet. It becomes apparent that Lily’s own undertaking (as opposed to the imminent undertaking of her physical body) is to keep herself alive and kicking, by convincing Deshi of her worth, and by keeping them both out of the hands of the grave robber, her own father, and Deshi’s family.
Such is the winding tale of The Undertaking of Lily Chen, which simultaneously reads like an old-timey fable (ghosts! murder! psychics!), and a collection of modern day dreams (military service, motorbikes, weird blond foreigners, and unrealized plans to see Beijing), which ultimately converge in an unlikely and strangely sweet love story that spans eras. Rural China is a great setting for this sort of thing — there’s an awareness that modern world is almost within reach, but people’s lives are still largely circumscribed by ancestral tradition and (though it’s not explored here explicitly) by authoritarian control. Novgorodoff’s own website calls this story an “Eastern Western” and I think that’s the perfect description — a society on the outskirts, on the precipice of great change, peopled with shifty and shiftless characters, with great potential for good and evil.
That said, Novgorodoff seems like an unlikely candidate to be writing a spooky tale of a semi-modern rural China complete with bride-stealing, grave-robbing, filial piety (or lack thereof), and hungry ghosts. Her previous works, Refresh Refresh and Slow Storm, are set in rural American communities, Oregon and Kentucky respectively, with all the cultural touchstones and emotional resonance inherent in those experiences. But upon second glance, there’s a thread there — the potential for the mythic and the grand in these unexplored, ignored corners of society, where the unexpected happens all the time. Plus, she’s a really fantastic illustrator, and that’s the great treat of this book, watching her navigate her watercolor-y way through mountainscapes, cloudbanks, sunrises, small towns, roaring rivers. The visual setting she creates for her haunting tale is perfect, mesmerizing, and involving and because of that, functions as character in the story. Well done, well-matched, and well worth checking out.