Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen

The Undertaking of Lily Chen, Danica NovogorodoffWhen Deshi Li’s brother dies unmarried, custom dictates that he must have a wife to keep him company in the afterlife — and it’s Deshi’s responsibility to find an eligible corpse before the funeral.

Unfortunately the only girl Deshi can find is very much alive. Lily Chen thinks Deshi is her ticket out of a forced marriage; Deshi only brings her along because he plans to kill her.

Things get complicated, however, when Deshi finds himself falling in love with the incipient corpse bride. He must fulfill his family responsibility, but will he be able to bring himself to kill Lily?

Good, but not great

I’m ambivalent about The Undertaking of Lily Chen, but not for the reasons I thought. I don’t love graphic novels in general — the supplied visuals are often amazing, but they get in the way of what I’ve got going on in my own mind.

This was the case for author/illustrator Danica Novgorodoff’s graphic novel, but the bigger issue was that I didn’t really enjoy the story itself either.

Deshi’s a weakling and Lily is a pill. Fortunately they both grow some during the course of the book, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that every other character is a bad guy. The corpse stealer. Lily’s father. Even Deshi’s brother was a jerk.

The person I found myself rooting for the most was Lily, and she wasn’t the main character. She’s strong and smart, which made Deshi look even weaker by comparison.

The novel was good, but not great. If you’re really into graphic novels, it’s a nice, visually pleasing read. Otherwise I’d recommend looking elsewhere.

Historical tidbits

Deshi’s family’s desire to find a “corpse bride” for their deceased son is a spin on the concept of the “ghost marriage,” in which one or both of the married partners are deceased.

In this tradition (which occurs most often in China, although it’s been discovered happening in India, Sudan, and even western Europe) a participant who is alive generally stays alive — they become a member of the deceased person’s family.

In some cases, however, only a corpse will do. And since China outlawed the entire ghost marriage tradition just after WWII, it all happens on the black market. As recently as 2013, people have been arrested for digging up and selling corpse brides.

While I think it’s reprehensible to dig up a deceased woman and sell her body, I find the idea of the tradition rather sweet — whether it’s a man or woman deciding to wed their deceased fiance, or a mourning family wanting their child to have a companion for eternity.

I’m not sure I would do such a thing, but I can understand why others do.

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. March’s challenge was to read a book in a genre that you’ve never tried or that you’re least familiar with.)

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