A Graphic Novel
First Second: 221 pp., $15.99 paper, ages 12 and up
Being an American teenager is difficult enough. Throw an exotic ethnicity into the mix, along with a pesky ghost, and things go haywire — delightfully so in the new graphic novel “Anya’s Ghost.” Written and drawn by Russian American artist Vera Brosgol, “Anya’s Ghost” is a beautifully rendered portrait of a zaftig young lass struggling to rid herself of her origins when everyone else wants to define her by it.
Rendered in black, white and muddy shades of purple in a clean, modern style, the book begins with Anya’s cherubic mother cooking a greasy, traditional breakfast for her weight-conscious daughter. Her mother insists that being fat is a good thing; in Russia it means you’ve got money. Eager-to-assimilate Anya sees things differently. “I don’t think American boys really go for girls that look like rich men,” she quips in a perfectly pitched book that channels the angst of the self-conscious, self-loathing immigrant teen.
Anya moved to the U.S. just in time for kindergarten. She’s worked long and hard to get rid of her accent and anything else that would make her appear “fobby,” or fresh off the boat, and turn her into a target for bullies. She now attends a fancy private school in the suburbs with hot, WASP-y blonds named Elizabeth. Anya is short for Annushka. Her last name: Borzakovskaya. What she lacks in legs, she makes up in heft and bosom. Anya isn’t doing particularly well in school. She doesn’t have many friends. In fact, the one friend she does have is more like a frenemy who jokes about bread lines.
Just as Anya is ruminating about the disaster that is her life — a scenario that’s pictured in a succession of panels showing ever-more-crowded thought bubbles — she falls into a deep hole in the ground, landing face to face with a skeleton. The remains belong to Emily Reilly, a girl who fell down the hole 90 years earlier and was never found. Anya learns this only when the skeleton yields a talking ghost.
Emily is presented as an impish apparition — skinny and wide-eyed and almost entirely white. Unbeknown to Anya (until Emily materialized from her book bag at school), Emily hitched a ride with Anya when she was pulled out of the hole with a rope. Now Emily wants to be her friend, an overture that makes Anya leery, despite her desperation for companionship.
A character with instant appeal for anyone who feels like an outsider, Anya is a comic figure but the emotions she feels are realistic and well rendered. Artist and author Brosgol, who immigrated to the U.S. from Moscow when she was a child, is clearly pulling from her own pained experience of trying to fit in, and she conveys that experience with relatable, self-deprecating humor in both her text and her drawings.
Anya is, by turns, petulant, anxious, embarrassed — emotions that are apparent not only in Anya’s facial expressions but the way Brosgol formats her pages and panels, telescoping in on a rush of feet in gym class, and backing out to show Anya tripping and falling down. The drone of an economics class is presented almost like a ticker tape in a series of scenes that end with Anya falling asleep at her desk.
Brosgol prefers to portray action in multiple panels with simple graphics instead of fewer panels drawn more intricately. The result is a well-paced story that feels dynamic and also intimate. The muted purple palette is a subtle underscoring of Anya’s bruised ego.
As she says toward the end of the book, “Everyone else’s life seems so much easier.” “Anya’s Ghost” is a humorous, beautifully drawn reminder that some lives aren’t so easy.