Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: Anya's Ghost

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Anya's Ghost - A Coming of Age Ghost Story

Growing up is hard to do, especially when someone feels like he or she doesn’t fit in. That’s the problem facing Anya Borzakovskaya in Vera Brosgol’s terrific debut graphic novel, "Anya’s Ghost." Brosgol, a talented comic and animation artist, skillfully blends a coming of age tale with a classic ghost story, creating a wonderful portrait of teenage life and the struggle for a sense of self identity.

Anya isn’t happy. She has trouble in school, can’t talk to a boy she has a crush on, and is slightly ashamed of her Russian heritage. But mostly she feels like an outsider with no one to call a true friend. After stumbling down an abandoned well one day, Anya discovers the skeletal remains of a person, and a ghost attached to those remains. The ghost, Emily, is delighted to find someone to talk to after years of isolation in the well, and takes a great interest in Anya. Anya is reluctant at first, but soon the two become friends, and Emily begins to devote her time to improving Anya’s social standing. Anya's grades improve, she’s more confident, and that cute boy Sean has taken a shine to her.

However, Anya soon learns there’s a price to be paid for her upward social mobility and assimilation, and Emily’s growing obsession with Anya’s life is a little bit creepy. The secret of Emily’s past is soon revealed, and Anya’s life will never be the same.

The Trials of Anya

The beauty of "Anya’s Ghost" is how well Brosgol captures the pain of growing up. Anya’s angst will feel all too familiar to many readers as she attempts to find her own sense of identity in high school. High school is in fact the perfect setting for a story such as this as it is a holding place for different kinds of people, all trying to create the best self-image for themselves. Some just do it better than others.

What helps Anya’s Ghost rise above the glut of young adult novels is its subtext of identity, particularly cultural identity. Initially Anya is ashamed of her Russian heritage, and insists her last name is the generic “Brown,” rather than Borzakovskaya, to a school administrator. She also tries to ignore the nerdy but kind Dima, a recent Russian immigrant and reminder of her own cultural heritage. Anya’s mom later laments that Anya hasn’t attended her Russian church in weeks.

Anya is a character who wants to ignore her background so she can assimilate into the popular crowd. Her goal throughout the novel in essence is to replace Sean’s girlfriend with herself. Emily gleefully abets Anya in her quest and constantly encourages Anya to push herself farther and farther. But near the story’s third act Anya realizes the consequences of her actions and what her denial could do to her life. She discovers Sean’s current girlfriend isn’t some dumb bimbo and Sean might not be the boy of her dreams.
Anya’s cultural anxiety is a great new spin on the tired “be yourself” maxim. She learns throughout the book that she can’t divorce herself from her background, as it informs so much of who she is. But she also comes to realize that she doesn’t have to be a slave to it either, and the book ends with Anya a little wiser and ready to move on with her life.

Ghostly Images

One definite highlight of the book is Brosgol’s art style. All the characters are drawn in a very round, appealing manner, with big expressive eyes and thick and thin lines. The characters both feel like classic cartoon characters (think 1940s comic strips), while still retaining a modern edge. Compared to the incredibly detailed designs of super hero comics and magna, Brosgol’s style is real breath of fresh air. Emily’s design in particular is very good as her swooping curves and pupil-less eyes create a nice ethereal look, as compared to Anya, who is more realistically drawn. The book’s limited purple-tone color palette is also quite striking and perfectly fits the story’s somber and reflective mood.

Brosgol served as a storyboard artist on the stop-motion feature, "Coraline," and the experience served her well as the staging in "Anya’s Ghost" is both very cinematic and very clear. At no point during the book will the reader ever be confused by the layout as Brosgol has a keen understanding of visual storytelling. Indeed there are a number of sequences in the book where Brosgol completely eschews dialogue, creating wordless scenes that accomplish an incredible amount of emotion and depth.

That depth is all the more remarkable considering "Anya’s Ghost" is Vera Brosgols’s first graphic novel, and hopefully not her last. Her story of teenage angst and cultural identity is a powerful one, and something any reader could appreciate and enjoy. While not every reader had a ghost as best friend during high school, the story’s emotional truth resonates well beyond the supernatural trappings.

For more of Vera Brosgol's artwork, check out her website Verabee.

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