Anya, as portrayed by Vera Brosgol in her young-adult graphic novel, is a high school girl with traditional high school girl issues: she frets about her weight, she has crushes on boys she’d be better off staying away from, she secretly smokes cigarettes with her best friend, she tries to separate herself from her Russian past, and she’s trying to be her own person.
Oh, and she also accidentally falls down a hole and discovers a skeleton inhabited by a 90-year-old ghost who, by her account, was murdered. The ghost, Emily Reilly, seems benevolent while lingering around her. Then matters escalate.
“There aren’t any other Russian students there?”
“Nope, just your run of the mill rich white New Englander private school kids.”
An aside: I am a New Englander, but I do not come from a rich family and I attended public school. Also, I consider myself agnostic — the universe is too weirdly symmetrical for me to consider otherwise — but I am not religious. However, I was very briefly raised as Roman Catholic. (My mother rightfully got pissed off at the church and we stopped attending services when I was quite young.)
My wife, however, is Greek Orthodox. One of the fun things about being Roman Catholic? I didn’t have to convert to get married to her in a Greek Orthodox church, partially because of how Catholic Orthodoxy spread across continents. I even had the fucking paperwork to prove so. (Yes, this is an actual thing and yes, I fucking hated it, but you do what you have to do for love and legal issues.)
Anya is an early Russian immigrant to America, explicitly Russian Orthodox but she’s spent a lot of time erasing that. Her mother — we’re never quite told what happened to her father — moved heaven and earth to give Anya the life she has. Anya, in a traditional act of teenage rebellion, punts on attending services, although her Russian heritage is not something that she can escape.
“Shut up! You look great!”
“Are you sure it’s not too loose-woman?”
(I will note: I am not going to touch on any of the recent Russian tumult.)
As noted above: my wife is Greek Orthodox. I’ve attended a number of Greek Orthodox church events, from Greek Easters — fun fact: not even remotely the same as what folks consider traditional Easter! — to funerals to weddings, even our own of which I was not completely educated about and kind of made a fool of myself in a BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING sort of way.
Religion is weird. I don’t begrudge anyone who finds solace in it, because we all need something to latch onto, but let’s face it: the rituals are fucking crazy and abstract and the history behind them do not make much sense. (Again, no judging!)
“I’m not interested in the life you wanted, or your taste in men.”
That spectre of belief, of history, of generations and what Anya’s mother believes in and has lived through looms over Anya as she tries to navigate her high school life, even as she exploits Emily to cheat on tests and woo folks. I’ll note that Anya? She doesn’t appreciate any of the kind graces her mother or brother or friends attempt to ingratiate on her. She’s having none of it, in only the way that teens do. (Been there, done that.) She has the occasional sense of self-awareness, but — like a teen — she’s firmly fixated on her wants and needs and it’s refreshing to see this honest portrayal of a slightly shitheel of a youth.
I’ve spent many words extolling the plot and story and depth of character here, and I do not want to ignore Brosgol’s astounding artwork. The line work is lush, the character expressions are so vibrant and telling, and her panel work and visual structure is extremely stark and effective. When Anya is shocked, her eyes grow astoundingly wide in a way that makes you feel for her, and the same when she feels shame, or anger. All of the emotions are on display via Brosgol’s penmanship, and you can’t help but hurt for Anya, even though she can often be a bit of a brat.
It is a perfect encapsulation of an auteur graphic novel work, all heart both in words and visuals, with a touch of supernatural and teen horror.
“I’m human! She’s just a pissy cloud!”
This is definitely a brag, but the copy I received was signed to myself and my wife, and also arrived with a print that I want to share because it’s amazing. Brosgol does astounding work — she goes above-and-beyond. Her pieces are something special.