Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen

This might be one of the most clever covers of the year.
The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff is one of those books you open up not really knowing what to expect.  China is a country of a billion people. China is a communist nation with its own version of capitalism. China is a nation that seems to be the economic engine for the rest of the world. All of these things- good and bad- help define China to the modern world. But China is an old land with old traditions and beliefs, and this book uses that clash of worlds to move the story forward.
 Deshi is a young man, and it seems he is struggling to become a pilot in the People's Army. His older brother Wei teases him and the brothers begin to fight when Wei falls into the path of a jeep and is killed.  When Deshi breaks the news to his family they are devastated. It seems Wei was the favorite child and the one who was most successful in their parents' eyes. They even tell Deshi they would rather he would have been the one to die instead of Wei. Wanting to provide for their favorite son in death, the parents send Wei on a quest to find the corpse of a female- preferably young, attractive and unmarried- to be married to Wei in death so he is not alone for eternity.
Some of the brilliant colors in the book.
 Lily is a poor farmer's daughter (from the illustrations it looks like the farm grows dirt or flat land- hard to tell) who longs to get out of her stark and simple existence. When Deshi encounters Lily, he kidnaps her with plans to kill her on the way home, ensuring that he delivers a fresh and beautiful corpse bride for his brother. Along the way, the couple encounter palm readers, monks, and survival in the outdoors. They learn about each other and share their hopes and dreams and they fall in love. The are pursued by Song, a man who finds brides for the deceased and doesn't quit a job until it is done and by Lily's father- a massive man with a stone-angry face. Deshi and Lily must now trust each other to find a way out of their predicaments and bring about a happy ending for each other.
I was expecting more supernatural elements to the story- China seems to have a strong reverence for ancestors, and I thought it would be interesting to see their interaction with the real world- would they approve of what the Deshi and Lily did? Would they help Lily's father? Would they encounter any demons or monsters from Chinese lore?
 Alas, the entire story is set in modern, but very rural China where progress is coming, and many of the old ways are going away if they are not to the advantage of those who can use them, i.e., the landlord who will agree to extend the Chen's lease on the land if they will give him Lily as a bride.
 I have to admit, I was not a fan of the art style, but it became less distracting as the story continued to build. I was also captivated by the use of the watercolored tones and use of white space on the pages.
An example of the great use of white space.
 This is an older teen book at best with a lot of adult themes- sex, language, smoking, drinking, murder, black market dealings, etc. but it is an engaging look into Chinese life and culture and the importance that is placed on tradition and the deceased. If you want a story that exposes you to different values and thinking, then The Undertaking of Lily Chen is an excellent resource that will also be an enjoyable reading journey.
 The Undertaking of Lily Chen is published by :01 Books. It is 430 pages of full color art, has a suggested retail price of $29.99 and will be released for sale on March 25.

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