Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Anya’s Ghost is pretty much Nymeth’s fault. The art style and story interested me when I read her review, and I was delighted to discover that the public library next to my college had a copy. (They’ve actually got quite a good collection of comics and graphic novels, and they’re shelved next to young adult fiction, rather than in the bowels of the Dewey Decimal system, like my public library at home. They also don’t shelve according to genre, which I love. Score one for public library next to my college.) I rented it along with X-Men: Magneto Testament before realizing I hadn’t fulfilled my vow of reading Understanding Comics before reading any more comics, so I kept it for a while… but I eventually got it around to reading it.
Anya’s Ghost follows Anya Borzakovskaya, a Russian teenager now attending a private high school in New England. Embarrassed by her Russian mother (Anya herself squashed her accent in middle school) and playing the delinquent with her best friend Siobhan, Anya longs to fit in and catch the eye of Sean, the upperclassman she has a crush on. One day, on the way to school, Anya falls down a well and finds herself facing a skeleton and its accompanying ghost—Emily Reilly, a girl about Anya’s age who died around World War I. When Anya accidentally scoops up part of Emily’s finger, the ghost comes with her, and the two begin to work together towards Anya’s cherished goals. But you should never trust everything a ghost tells you…
While Anya’s Ghost was on my desk, I stumbled across the tumblr drawthisdress (or fashion from old people, tumblr is willfully vague), which takes photos of outfits from throughout history and giving them life by drawing them being worn by women. The two artists are Emily Carroll and Vera Brosgol, whose name sounded very familiar when I started reading the blog. But even without making the admittedly obvious connection, I loved Brosgol’s warm, cheerful line work and the life she gives to the women she draws. There’s even a drawing of Anya in an turn of the century bathing costume; check it out. The art, rendered monochromatically, is pleasant and expressive, and Brosgol, who has been creating comics since 2002, knows exactly what she’s doing, often relying on her art rather than dialogue to get the message across. I really wish there were an easy way to include specific panels in reviews so I could show you the scene where Anya, attending a party on Emily’s advice as part of getting closer to Sean, is absolutely bewildered by the situation. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Anya herself is adorable, with freckles and big hips.
As Nymeth mentions in her review, Anya’s Ghost is about liminal spaces. Anya struggles with trying to reconcile the various roles she inhabits—her Russian heritage and her American present, being a child and being an adult, and who she thinks is and who she actually is. Throughout the graphic novel, Dima, a fellow Russian student, shadows Anya like a guilty conscience. Embarrassed by the idea of being associated with him by sheer dint of heritage (not helped by Siobhan, who often lumps them together to annoy her), she ignores him, avoids him, and, if forced to interact with him, tries to correct him when he does anything that shows he’s “fresh off the boat”. As Emily helps her to become the teenage girl Anya has always wanted to be, Anya quickly realizes that the reality of what she wants is not what she expected. (Blissfully, Brosgol shies away from demonizing Elizabeth, the girl who represents everything Anya wants to be, down to dating Sean.) In that same party scene I mentioned above, a schoolmate of Anya’s comments on her breasts; despite an elaborate fantasy of being extremely desirable right before the party, she has no idea how to react.
It’s a spooky read that, I think, would be perfect for October, although I’ve long lost the ability to read anything in an appropriate time beyond the season. (I read A Song of Ice and Fire in the winter, because that’s thematic and because I need the time.) Emily, who is darker than she initially seems, is the scariest part of the book, but only because she represents a kind of wild teenage id that comes from wanting to fit in—into society or into someone’s heart—so desperately that you’ll do anything, and that’s the path she initially sets Anya towards. The best speculative fiction uses its fantastical trappings to turn the mirror on us, and Brosgol succeeds wildly into doing so here.
Bottom line: A spooky and expressive graphic novel about the dangers of wanting to fit in so desperately that you’ll do anything, Anya’s Ghost is a fun and good read. Well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.