New and old traditions clash in ‘Undertaking of Lily Chen’

In certain cultures, some ancient traditions remain deeply rooted within families while the rest of the world progresses into the 21st century. For Deshi Li, the monumental task of finding a ghost bride for his recently deceased brother is vital, for departing into the spirit world without a companion is an unspeakable act his family still firmly believes in.

“The Undertaking of Lily Chen” by Danica Novgorodoff follows Deshi as he accidentally kills his older brother, prompting him to travel across the outskirts of northern China looking for a fresh corpse to satisfy his brother’s restless spirit.

While ghost marriages were first practiced several centuries ago in China, they’ve since been outlawed starting in 1949. That doesn’t stop the more rural regions of the country from still practicing the tradition of digging up female corpses and marrying them posthumously to the highest bidder.

That’s the pickle Deshi finds himself in, for while he knows nothing of where to find a fresh female cadaver, he must deal with a shady individual named Song who does this sort of illegal thing for a living.

After a long trek through the wilderness and barren wastelands, Deshi and Song arrive at an old graveyard and quickly get to work. The corpse they unearth is long past its expiration date, making Deshi distressed.

This leaves Song with the only solution left: making a fresh corpse instead, which means killing an innocent victim. That’s where Lily Chen comes in.

A beautiful daughter raised by two poor farmer parents, Lily unknowingly stumbles upon Deshi (who was in the midst of planning to kill her) and sees an opportunity to leave her poor life for a better one filled with riches in Beijing.

Deshi is taken by surprise from all of this, but agrees to allow Lily to travel with him and his mule back to his brother’s funeral in Yùn Tài. While he missed the first opportunity to kill her, he’ll now have less than a week to make his plan come to fruition and avoid bringing dishonor to his dead brother.

With Song looking for Deshi to help him finish the job he was paid for, and Lily’s father looking for Deshi because he thinks he kidnapped his little girl, Deshi can’t wait to get back home and out of danger fast enough.

The only problem is Lily is like a wild stallion whose spirit needs to be broken, with Deshi not being much of an experienced cowboy.

Novgorodoff’s art is absolutely breathtaking, especially in scenes taking place in the vast Chinese wilderness. There’s a beautiful calligraphy influenced feel throughout, with vibrant watercolors gracing every page in some very imaginative ways.

While the story does revolve around maintaining traditions, it also questions their place in the rapidly evolving present. In the case of ghost marriages and digging up corpses, how much does it really cost to keep that illegal tradition alive?

Lily’s spunk and brazenness help lighten the mood of such a macabre subject, for it becomes apparent that while Deshi is bringing her home for her brother, he’s becoming quite fond of her romantically: thereby making things more complicated for himself.

Faced with so many odds, Deshi and Lily must find a way to not only appease traditions, but to also escape with their lives.

“The Undertaking of Lily Chen” is available March 25 through First Second Books. With 432 pages of brilliant color and story, it’s well worth your time and money.