Every once in a while you’ll read a story that seems to keep converging on itself. In the best possible way. The words are like impressionistic brushstrokes and they come to inform this very rich, and often very beautiful picture. Danica Novgorodoff’s The Undertaking of Lily Chen is one of those books. “The story begins where a young life ends,” the life of Wei Li. Ancient Chinese tradition – and his parents – insist that Wei’s brother, Deshi, must find a young bride to accompany him in eternal sleep. Grieving aside, Deshi’s task is not a simple one. In modern China, demand for corpse brides is high. A journey awaits.
Deshi is the straightest arrow in the quiver, a refined military man from a wealthy family. His first instinct upon encountering farmer’s daughter/rebel, Lily, is to kill her. But she steals his donkey, desperate to escape poverty and boredom, and the two end up unlikely travel mates. Lily is a firecracker, crass and coarse, and Deshi contemplates killing her more than a few times. But fate has something else in store. As the two reckon with Song, a body bounty hunter, money grubbing fortune tellers, and a bunch of drunk monks, truths are revealed and opposites attract. Novgodroff has read her Tolstoy. And her Hegel. And her ancient and Eastern philosophy.
The simple, beautiful ink paintings by which she tells the story of Lily Chen realize a unity of medium and message. Scenic panels depict both traditional Eastern subject matter, like landscapes and villages, as well as those of the more modern sort, with power lines and infrastructure.
This juxtaposition of old and new occurs throughout, contributing to a larger contemplation of the nature, and relationship, of opposites. Yin and yang can really blow your mind if you allow them. And, really, the same goes for this First Second book. The Undertaking of Lily Chen belongs on any philosopher’s bookshelf.