Sunday, April 15, 2012

Book Review: Anya's Ghost, by Vera Brosgol

by Oksana Lushchevska, The Pennsylvania State University

In her graphic novel, Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol traces the  differences teenagers face in overcoming cultural barriers as immigrants in the United States. Focusing on two characters of Russian extraction, Anya and Dima, Brosgol places emphasis on the individual psychological development of teenagers.

For Anya, adaptation is a long process: she learns to speak English without an accent, to dress and behave similarly to American schoolgirls. Despite her adjustment to school life, Anya does not have many friends. To make things worse, she unhappily falls in love with a boy and goes through puberty at the same time.

Although Anya and Dima are classmates, Anya pretends that they have nothing in common because Dima still speaks with a strong Russian accent. Anya feels embarrassed that they have a common cultural background. Moreover, Anya is ashamed of her mother, who cooks Russian food, goes to the Russian Orthodox Church, and calls her “Annushka,” a diminutive of “Anna” (41).

All of the above sets the backdrop for the beginning of a mystery that Anya unexpectedly comes to face.  While desperately trying to escape all her troubles, she falls into an old well and meets a ghost named Emily Reily. (Emily was killed 90 years ago.) Anya accidentally takes the ghost’s bone out with her, which allows Emily to come out of the well.

At the beginning of their relationship, Emily helps Anya to cheat on school tests and to attract the attention of Anya’s love interest. In time, however, the ghost starts to act viciously and makes Anya suspect she is lying. Consequently, Anya goes to the library to find Emily’s story in old newspapers to reveal the truth about her death.

Curiously, the library episode changes Anya’s attitude towards Dima, who she meets there. It turns out that Dima is not a completely ignorant Russian boy; he has simply not yet adjusted to the new school and culture. Dima helps Anya with the old newspapers. In contrast to her, he knows how to work with archives without the Internet or Google because he used to study without up-to-date technology in his Russian school. From this point on, Anya and Dima begin to talk about their life in the United States. Dima confesses that he is bullied and struggles a lot with his new life. Anya answers that she has also been bullied, but she is sure that things will change for Dima in the near future (151).

In the library scene, Anya utters a phrase extremely important to readers from a diverse background: “You’re a little foreign kid. You can’t really blame [American children]” (149). This phrase refers to a complex challenge for readers to go beyond cultural stereotypes and might serve as the perfect core for an in-class conversation.

When Anya discovers that Emily turns out to be a killer and a liar, she begins to see herself differently. With her newly gained experience and confidence, Anya stops lying to herself about her family and reevaluates her relationship with her mother, her brother, and Dima.

In her graphic novel, Brosgol likely incorporates her life experiences. According to Brosgol’s biography, she was born in Russia and moved to the US when she was five. Although she “spent most of her life being American” (cover), it is clear that she is familiar with the main issues of cultural dislocation.

For English-speakers, Brosgol introduces a few cultural images associated with Russia, such as traditional Orthodox icons and a wooden cross on the walls of Anya’s house (39). She also uses the word “syrnik” (a dry Russian cheese cake) for more Russian cultural flavor.

Brosgol’s book is a high-quality graphic novel with a balance of mystery and realism. The compelling display of a dark-blue, gray, and white color palette provides an additional mysterious tone to the plot. The emotional content of the story is conveyed mostly through the images that will allow readers to swiftly follow the episodes.

Anya’s Ghost is an exemplary blend of the correlation of text and art that might be of interest to a wide audience.

Anya’s Ghost. By Vera Brosgol. New York: First Second, 2011 

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