The Story: Anya’s Ghost, a graphic novel by Vera Brosgol, tells the story of Anya Borzakovskaya, a daughter of a Russian immigrant who tries her best to fit in with her American peers. One day when Anya has an unfortunate accident, she runs across a decades’ old ghost named Emily who seems eager to have a friend. Anya obliges and the two girls bond but it’s not without consequence.
My Take: Anya’s Ghost is my first graphic novel that was an original story as opposed to being based on preexisting characters (as I’ve read and enjoyed the Star Trek: Ongoing novels as well as Pain and Prejudice, a graphic novel about the Batman villain, Penguin). At first, I was expecting this to be a cutesy tween read where the lead character gets a specter for a best pal. While some of that holds true, in the end Anya’s Ghost delivered a sucker punch I wasn’t expecting. It was this, combined with its heartfelt message about trying to fit in, that earned it a full five stars from me on GoodReads.
Art-wise, this graphic novel is a bit sparse in the color department, but I think it works for the story and its tone. The general color scheme is black, white, and various shades of grey/purple. It’s easy on the eyes and causes you to focus more on the story than the surroundings.
Below are samples of the art, which you’ll need to click on in order to enlarge. (All screenshots were captured by me on my Kindle app; also, these are from early on in the novel, so there are no spoilers):
As much as I liked the artwork, it was the character expressions that won me over in the visuals department. The characters are cartoon-like enough to keep from appearing too realistic, but they’re not so comically rendered that they lose their humanness. In some panels, especially the ones without dialogue, the characters’ “acting” is genuinely convincing and you’re not left scratching your head as to what’s going on.
But what really sucked me in was the story. Anya is the daughter of a Russian immigrant and has fought hard to assimilate herself into American culture: she’s lost weight, dons trendy clothes, sneaks cigarettes, and avoids anything and anyone that/who might remind her of her homeland. At times, Anya can be unnecessarily cruel to her friends and family but that didn’t make me dislike her. While her harsh words aren’t excusable, Anya delivers a good balance between maturity and adolescent behavior that causes her to seem like a realistic teenager who is trying to figure life out – sometimes she gets it right, sometimes she gets it wrong but she learns from it one way or the other.
Anya’s life changes when, after falling down a hole in a park, she encounters the ghost of a young lady named Emily. Emily follows Anya around because Anya keeps a bone fragment from Emily’s skeleton. Emily serves as the little friend on Anya’s shoulder: she helps Anya do better in school (albeit by cheating), enables her to pluck up the courage to talk to a boy she has a crush on, and gives general advice. At first, Anya’s confidence gets a much-needed boost, but her relationship with Emily slowly takes a dark, sinister turn.
The surprises in this book are worth not being spoiled for, so I’ll refrain from sharing specifics (though the last several pages had me quickly turning, anxious to see how the plot would be resolved). I will say that I almost gave up early on, thinking this was going to be another coming-of-age story, but I was quite wrong. Yes, Anya’s Ghost contains hallmarks of a coming-of-age novel and, yes, the protagonist is a teen girl; but, at its core, it’s a ghost story. Not in the “boo-gotcha!” sort of tale but one that builds to a frightening premise that scares more on a psychological level as opposed to outright horror. Thus, the central “scare” is that we have to be careful to the “voices” we listen to in life lest they lead us down some very dark paths.
In the end, Anya becomes smarter and more grateful for the people in her life. I especially enjoyed seeing her make amends with a fellow Russian student when he offers to help her with no strings attached. It’s a moment that could have been marred by a spoon-fed message about not trying to escape your past or avoiding people because they don’t match your ideal of “cool” or popular. Instead, it’s handled deftly through Anya’s actions.
That’s a technique presented all throughout this graphic novel – a smart, deft hand. In a book geared for teens (with appeal to adults, I think), Anya’s Ghost never comes across as hackneyed or preachy. It addresses worthwhile themes such as cultural appreciation and assimilation (and the pros and cons to both), peer pressure, moral choices, and dissecting the truth, all in ways that lack vagueness and are devoid of soapbox moments. The moral of the book, in which a character tells Anya that she “may look normal like everyone else. But…not on the inside,” and then closes out with some dialogue-less panels, sums up this novel’s central theme (i.e. that it’s our choices that define us) in a way that lets the reader take it in rather than be bashed over the skull with inane platitudes.
Character-wise, this graphic novel possesses a fun, memorable cast. Aside from Anya, we have her Russian mother and her younger brother (who likes to bury Anya’s jewelry). Both of these characters, while not given too much attention, create a dynamic home environment for Anya to contend with. Thankfully, they manage to not become tropes as her mother avoids being the dumb parent figure and her brother avoids being the irritating younger sibling figure. Anya clearly loves them but struggles with her desire to assimilate into the culture around her yet she can’t run away from her heritage. Other characters include Siobhan, Anya’s tomboyish school chum; Sean, Anya’s crush; and, of course, Emily.
Emily is the most mercurial character in the book and not because she’s a ghost. At first, she appears to be a sweet, charming, innocent girl, but that changes when she offers to “help” Anya. In a way, Emily is Anya’s doppelganger by inverting Anya’s character and demonstrating traits she lacks, such as confidence and a willingness to bend the rules. Anya is flawed but not to this extreme; hence, Emily becomes an angel/devil on Anya’s shoulder, which generates the bulk of the story’s tension.
Language -Some mild, PG-level profanities (generally spoken by Siobhan) but these are not pervasive.
Violence -While there is no actual violence, there are some tense, perilous moments. Also, while there is talk of a murder, no details of the crime are shown.
Sexual Content -While there is also no sexual content or nudity, there are some sporadic innuendos and one of the boys at Anya’s school has a reputation for cheating (which he does so with a girl in a bathroom but we’re never shown what he’s doing – we only learn about it from another character). Elsewhere, a few teenage girls don mildly immodest clothing, mainly cleavage-showing tops, but nothing too grossly inappropriate. Lastly, Anya’s mother is typically shown in a cleavage-bearing top but it’s not done to be titillating; and Anya has a mishap that causes her to trip, fall, and accidentally reveal her panties, but this is strictly meant to be embarrassing, not titillating.
Thematic Elements – There are several panels showing teenagers (including Anya) smoking cigarettes (I’m assuming these teens are under 18 as they seem to be sneaking a smoke rather than smoking in the open); however, this is never depicted as “cool” (just the opposite, actually). Also, some of the teens, including Anya, harbor a bad attitude at times and treat others coldly though their behavior is never shown in a way that presents it as positive. Lastly, Anya does mull over her weight at times but she’s not obsessed with it nor does she engage in unhealthy behaviors to lose weight. Overall, this graphic novel is relatively clean, though I would advise that parents/guardians check it out first to gauge its appropriateness for teen readers. But for adults, this is a great pick!
Overall, Anya’s Ghost surprised me with its moral subtlety, fun cast, and interesting artwork. The story itself is truly engaging and I found myself glued to each page until the very end. Fans of graphic novels should definitely check this out as I think it has something for everyone, including a smart and well-played “scare” factor. This remains one of my top books of the year and I can’t recommend it highly enough.