Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The haunting

I read a preview of Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost on Tor.com, and the delightful artwork reminded me strongly of Persepolis. Brosgol is a talented, dynamic illustrator (she wrote a delightful, unfortunately unfinished webcomic, Return to Sender, worked on the animated film Coraline, and has a website full of cute drawings over at Verabee.com). So, I very much looked forward to getting her first book, Anya's Ghost.

Anya's Ghost is illustrated is a somber pallette of whites, blacks, and a purpley-blue bruise-like color. The titular character, Anya, is loosely autobiographical - like Anya, Vera was born in Russia and came to the United States as a child. Anya attends a WASP-y private school where she's trying very, very hard to fit in, with mixed results. She's successfully jettisoned her accent and blends in pretty well, but the school's only other Russian (twerpy Dima, a head shorter than Anya with Coke-bottle glasses) persists in trying to befriend her, and Anya's only other real friend is a tomboyish, prickly girl named Siobhan.

Brosgol does a great job illustrating the tricky social minefield of high school, and in particular, being the outsider. Refreshingly, Anya isn't a wimp or a pushover. Sure, she's lonely and would like to be more like blond, skinny Elizabeth (Anya's a zaftig brunette with freckles), but she's also smart, sarcastic, and has enough perspective on her situation to both want to fit in and understand the ridiculousness of navigating high school. It also helps that Anya isn't always particularly nice - she's mean to dorky Dima and quick to latch onto a chance to hang with the popular kids.

Anya falls down an abandoned well and finds herself next to a skeleton. That would be creepy enough, but this particular skeleton is haunted by Emily Reilly, who fell down the well ninety years ago and died of thirst. Emily, drawn as a transparent, lanky girl with a cloud of fluffy hair, is eager to escape the boring well, but Anya is understandably less thrilled. Anya accidentally scoops up one of Emily's finger bones, which lets her tag along with Anya when she's pulled out of the well.

Emily tells Anya her tragic tale (parents and fiance both killed before tumbling into the well) and is initially useful, helping Anya cheat on her biology test and engineering conversations with Sean, Anya's crush (and Elizabeth's boyfriend, and star of the basketball team, and swoon-inducingly handsome).

Soon, however, Emily becomes more and more pushy, and when Anya does some digging in the local archives, she finds out that Emily is more sinister than she thought. Getting rid of her proves tricky, as Emily begins growing stronger and threatening Anya's family, leaving Anya stuck with a murderous ghost and no one to help.
The illustrations are charming, from the ethereal-turned-threatening Emily to the hapless Dima. The dialogue is frequently hilarious, and Brosgol's Anya is a realistic mix of smartassery and insecurity that anyone who remembers teenagerhood will recognize. The plot twist takes the story in a wholly unexpected direction, although the last third seems rushed. Overall, the book seems somewhat too short, and the ending is regretful - I would have liked to have more time to spend with Anya and Emily. Using a ghost to deliver Important Life Lessons tm is an unsual strategy, but Brosgol's witty illustrations pull it off. I look forward to seeing another, hopefully longer, graphic novel from her in the future.

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