Book Club #9: Anya’s Ghost

For the ninth installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club, the four of us read the graphic novel Anya’s Ghost, written and drawn by Vera Brosgol. We’re going to start our discussion by sharing an e-mail exchange that took place among the Fantastic Fangirls staff. This is a starting point for whatever our readers would like to say about the book. In the comments, feel free to address any of the points that came up in our discussion, or raise a topic/question of your own. Enjoy!

Please note that major SPOILERS will occur during this discussion, and, since Anya’s Ghost is a particularly twisty kind of book, you may want to wait until you’ve finished it to check out this post. Remember, if you haven’t got the book yet, you can check out in this free preview.

Caroline: I want to start, appropriately enough, with the beginning.

I was impressed at how effectively — and how quickly — Vera Brosgol drew me into the fictional world she had created. I’ve heard the theory that the first twenty minutes of a film, or the first chapter of a book, exists to set up the baseline of the characters and setting, before something happens to change them. In Anya’s Ghost, this “set up” is particularly significant because the “change” occurs when a supernatural element is introduced into the story. Anya falls down a well and meets a ghost!

The ghost is the “hook” of the story, but it was the “real world” groundwork laid in the first twelve pages that made the ghost story matter to me. [Note: You can read the pages referenced, and a few more, in the preview.] If you look at those, they introduce (with one significant exception) all of the major characters, and give a very clear sense of who Anya is and how she feels about her life. That’s particularly impressive when you notice that seven of those twelve pages are wordless. So many of the comics I read strike me as over-reliant on captions and narration, but Brosgol lets images and dialogue tell the story.

When I read that opening, I knew I was in the hands of a skilled and confident storyteller, and I knew I was going to keep reading no matter what happened..

Sigrid: I completely agree. I found the art to be clear and evocative. Moreover, I found Anya’s world to be explained to the reader through Anya’s point of view — a neat trick, delivering the exposition while showing us the character.

I also appreciated that Brosgol gives us reason to be sympathetic to every character. All the characters are flawed, all have foibles, and there is a distinct villain. But they are all recognizably human, with complex motivations that makes sense to them. This makes for rich storytelling. I especially liked the revelations about Sean and Elizabeth midway through the book.

Anika: Comic books are so funny. My experience with the story would have been wholly different if it were all prose. The art is evocative, absolutely, but to my eye Anya resembles Caroline, Dima looks like my brother, I nicknamed Elizabeth “Gwen Stacy” — and because of those associations, made up entirely in my head based on how the characters were drawn, I connected to the characters and story on an extra level. Also I thought Siobhan was a boy until halfway through when Anya said “she”. So I’d expected the two to end up dating. Then I decided they could still end up dating and was sort of disappointed it didn’t end with a lesbian love story despite the fact that there was no hint of that and it would have been random and cheapened the story. I think it’s funny.

I’m curious how much of it is autobiographical, since Brosgal’s blurb starts with “was born in Moscow, Russia but spent most of her life being an American”. Obviously the ghost story is (probably) not true. But the bits of the story that dealt specifically with being immigrants stood out. So did the smoking. I was honestly relieved when Anya gave it up and said it wasn’t cool in the end. Which I’m sure says a great deal about MY American in the 80s “Just Say No” cultural upbringing….

Jennifer: Anika, I love that you immediately went to the immigrant experience aspect, because I found myself thinking a lot about how this book related to other graphic novels about immigration, assimilation, and being a stranger in a strange land — “American Born Chinese”, for instance, or “Persepolis”. All of these are graphic novels (memoirs or otherwise, with varying levels of fantasy involved) created by a single writer-artist, and I wonder if there’s something inherent in the medium that makes it work so well for these kinds of stories. Is it easier to share a story about difference and sameness when you’ve got the full palate of the written word and two-dimensional imagery at your disposal? Does it help that some things can be shown, rather than described, and others can be written, rather than spoken? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

But beyond the assimilation story, this was a ghost story, and I do wonder what everyone thought about that mixture. Personally, the supernatural aspects worked less well for me, because the ghost (both before and after the big reveal) never felt like a real, believable character with believable motivations. And though I can see how the supernatural story works to complement and drive the story of Anya’s personal journey, I felt like it may actually have taken away space from her personal story, which seemed to end rather abruptly. How did everyone else feel about the mix between the realistic and the supernatural?

Caroline: Wow, so much to talk about! This is great. I agree that the idea of the immigrant experience was central to this book. Maybe the reason it’s such a resonant theme in graphic literature has to do with something Sigrid said about the world of the story being filtered through Anya’s point of view. There could be something about comics, a medium that is visual but not strictly tied to natural or ‘realistic’ representations that makes it a good fit for the themes of culture clash. This is a recognizable real world — putting aside the ghost for a minute, I think we all can recognize these people and their experiences — but it’s the way the world is filtered through how it seems to Anya that makes the story work.

Speaking of Anya — to be honest, I have rarely encountered a protagonist that I found less sympathetic or “likeable” right out of the gate. She’s unkind, judgmental, obsessed with conformity. Even with Siobhan, who’s the closest thing she has to a friend, there’s not any obvious affection or enjoyment of the relationship.

I’m glad Anika brought up Siobhan, because she’s my favorite character in the book. It’s very subtle, but I like the fact that she seems completely indifferent to the concerns about “fitting in” that Anya is so hung up on. Possibly Anya is too hung up on to notice that Siobhan doesn’t care about any of this stuff. I wasn’t sure if we’re supposed to read Siobhan as lesbian or genderqueer, or just kind of a tomboy, but I loved that her self-presentation just wasn’t an issue in the book. She was doing her thing with a “take me or leave me” attitude, and she didn’t seem to get a particularly hard time about it.

That’s not to say that she was doing it right and Anya or Dima (who was “himself” and got picked on for it) was doing things wrong. The whole notion of “fitting in” at school is so complicated and arbitrary, and how some people manage to do it and others don’t is an eternal mystery. I liked that the book captured that. It’s not like everyone Anya knows is a perfect little conformist. The fact that Siobhan seems to get by without fitting the mold suggests that Anya’s drive to be like everyone else is partly self-imposed. That’s one example of how good the book is at exploring the complexity of “image.” Another is the way that Sean and Elizabeth’s perfect couple-dom is subverted in the party scene.

Given all of this, I find I agree with Jennifer. I didn’t really need the ghost story, and I didn’t find Emily as interesting as the human characters. I’m interested in other people’s thoughts about whether or how well the supernatural story worked.

Sigrid: I feel that the supernatural element is the only source of change the story has. I don’t think it had to be a ghost, but something did have to be there. A ghost, a djinn, a wish-granting frog, any of these elements would have worked. Part of why Anya is rather unlikable (I agree with you, Caroline, on that,) is that she is content with her snobbery and discontent at the start. There’s no indication that she sees her views or methods as problematic. Her relationship with Emily is what makes the change occur.

Anya’s moment of change centers around the invitation Sean extends to join him in the bedroom. She seems to be what Anya has wanted, yet, it’s not as she imagined it, and there are depths and nuances that undermine the perfect surface she had wanted. When Anya walks away from Sean, and subsequently refuses Emily’s “help,” Anya begins to realize that some appearances may not be worth their cost. Emily makes a good foil to this realization because Emily was willing to do terrible things. While the parallels are not exact, it’s enough to jolt Anya into self-awareness.

I think that a non-supernatural tale could have been constructed out of the elements we have, but it would be quite different.

Jennifer: I agree that the story needed some kind of catalyst. My problem was mostly with Emily as a character. Her quick adaptation to the gender norms of 2011 struck me as unrealistic, and her whole character was so over-the-top that it made her less effective, I think. To be a true foil for Anya, I think she’d have needed to be as complex as anyone else in the book, yet she ultimately turned out to be even less complex than she originally appeared — nothing but a garden-variety psychopath. I was really glad for Siobhan’s presence, too, because I found it disappointing that so much of this narrative centered on girl-rivalry/boy-crazy (in Emily’s case, literally!) tropes, and I would have liked to see more aspects of Anya’s obsession with conformity/assimilation. More Siobhan and Dima, much less Emily.

Caroline: You make a really good point, and I think that hits on why the ghost device didn’t exactly work for me. What Emily brought into the story struck me as completely arbitrary. It wasn’t really tied to the time or culture that she came from. She did have some comments about how she thought it was right for people from the same ethnic background to stick up for each other, but otherwise I didn’t see any reason for this ghost to be part of the story. The idea of a supernatural plot device seems like a good one for this story. It was just the specific mechanism that didn’t fully work. Especially in the last act of the story, the plot seemed to fall more into scary-for-its-own-sake than telling us something about Anya. There’s nothing wrong with a scary, suspenseful story; this just seemed like a shift from what the start of the story promised, and one that didn’t quite live up to the potential of that great first act.

Anika: All of this is really making me want to chat with the author. I can imagine Emily and her story popping into her creator’s mind much the way she popped into Anya’s life and that’s why she frames and drives the story. But ultimately it is the rest of story that we all were more drawn to. That said I really like the sequence where Emily is helping Anya (Ghosts are awesome!). What teenager wouldn’t want a little pocketful of magic to help them navigate high school and all its tests and traps? It felt very authentic, but also quirky and fun.

I definitely agree that once Emily’s true nature was revealed I found the story less interesting and powerful. It became about Anya getting away instead of Anya growing up. But I don’t know if I would have preferred a “Dumbo learns the magic feather is just a symbol for what’s inside of him” ending either. It would have felt equally clichéd. I think maybe I’m never really satisfied with the end of girl-coming-of-age stories because I am so fascinated with that narrative I don’t want it to end. All apologies to authors, I really would love to chat about it.

Sigrid: And, that said, the actual coming-of-age moment in the book is page 151, when Anya tells Dima “Impressing a bunch of snooty teenagers is a pretty lame life goal to have.”

Caroline: There definitely are “learning” moments in the story, though they didn’t come exactly where I expected — and that’s mostly a good thing. As much as I disliked Anya at the start, I ended up being sympathetic to the lessons she learned. In fact, when she made the decision not to pursue Sean, I found myself admiring her. Not that I would have thought she was bad or wrong if she had decided to accept him. I admired her choice because it showed a stronger sense of self and confidence in her own decisions than I would have expected up to that point. Yet the decision still felt true to the character Brosgol had created. That’s part of what “coming of age” can mean — when every experience is new, you can surprise yourself with your choices.

That brings me to the question of the audience for this story? Is it really about coming of age, and if so, is this a book you would share with a young adult or teenager? Is this a story you would have liked to have available when you were Anya’s age? (Or a little older, or a little younger?)

Anika: When it arrived in the mail I looked at the cover and thought of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline.” And I thought maybe it was a story I could share with my six-year-old. Having read it, no, it’s not age appropriate for Aeris. But I’d absolutely give it to her fifteen-year-old sister. Whether it is “coming-of-age” by someone’s definition or not, this book reads like the Young Adult Fiction that makes up a lot of my reading — and also like the memoirs that make up most of the rest, which is probably why I liked it. I don’t know if I would have read it when I was fifteen, and Kiki never reads anything I suggest, but if I were in charge of choosing its shelf, next to Twilight makes sense to me.

Sigrid: Something about this read as YA to me. There are books written by adults, featuring teens, that seems to be more about an adult audience seeking nostalgia or closure or understanding. And then there are books that seem to be actually for teens or preteens. (I say “seem” because I am thirty-eight years old, and am guessing, here.) This didn’t seem to be about adult closure. This read more like a memoir, in which events happen as they happened, whether or not that makes a tidy narrative.

Jennifer: I agree with Anika and Sigrid, and I’d like to add that I think the very fact that Anya is so unlikable at the beginning is part of what makes it so appropriate for a YA audience. As much as teens may want to identify with someone way more kickass or exciting than themselves, there’s a lot of value in showing them a teenager they can really identify with: surly and callous and not always capable of doing the right thing the first time out. She happily cheats on tests, after all! It makes her journey all the more relatable. And the book is also pretty cool and exciting — though I wasn’t a fan of the turn the story takes near the end, there’s no question that the scenes in which Anya is trying to protect her family from Emily’s murderous machinations are genuinely scary. It means, for teens, that they don’t have to sacrifice exciting story for a moral lesson.

So that’s the start of our discussion! Let us know if you read along with us, if you have thoughts on any of the questions posed here, or questions of your own!

  • There’s a reason that it made you think of Coraline… Vera was the storyboard artist for the movie.

  • Caroline

    Jim — Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that! It makes total sense. I didn’t get around to mentioning it in the discussion, but I think the artist’s work in film really shows in how well the visuals move the story along.

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  • Monica

    Thank you for picking this book – I hadn’t heard of it prior to this book club, and I found it extremely enjoyable. I agree that the Emily was the flattest character in the story, but I loved the genuinely creepy moments of the ghost story – the moments where Emily’s true personality starts showing, and that OH CRAP moment in the library when Dima reveals the truth. I also liked the creepy visual of Emily’s ghost-and-skeleton, and that Anya had to convince Emily (and herself) that what she had been chasing was a ghost.

    Anyway, great art and very readable, enjoyable story!

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