Anya's Ghost
by Vera Brosgol (First Second, 2011)

When you're a teenager, it's hard to fit in. This message is hardly a new philosophy. I love writers and artists who can tackle such a seemingly blanket topic with subtlety, skill and wit. All of that is in Vera Brosgol's first graphic novel, Anya's Ghost, which Neil Gaiman has described as a masterpiece. In this case, he's completely right.

Anya Borzakovskaya is sarcastic, realistic, clever and wise -- just the sort of girl who doesn't fit in at her high school. Her snark is of course a poor cover for her loneliness. After immigrating with her family to America, she finds herself struggling to belong at her private school and somehow never quite managing. This would be enough story on its own, but a very intriguing ghost story is woven into the fabric early on. It's so skillfully done that it has no feel of being an additive or a nod to the exploding genre of paranormal fiction. Brosgol neatly ties it to her main theme by placing it in service of a larger message: differences between people are not to be despised. And trying too hard to fit in has consequences, some of them pretty serious.

Anya wants, more than anything, for someone to understand who she is and what she is going through. Her best friend, to use the term loosely, is a tomboy named Siobhan whose sole purpose in life is to see who she can upset next. Apart from that, and a young, geeky boy at school named Dima who is also a Russian immigrant, Anya is on her own, until a walk through the park, taken on a day she ditches school, changes her world.

Although she's been across the same park many times before, she never noticed the uncovered old well until she fell into it, stranding herself for two days. But she's not alone. The ghost of a young girl, Emily Reilly, who also fell into the well 90 years ago and died there, keeps her company.

It's best not to know too much more about the plot going in. Suffice to say that Anya gets out of the well and finds herself accompanied everywhere by the helpful Emily, the seemingly perfect friend and confidante. At the same time, Anya is trying to find a way to be popular herself and fit in better. But trying for the wrong things, for the wrong reasons, can force life to take a darker turn, and it certainly does for Anya.

The time-honored, road-tested themes are well presented. The entire story is well thought-out, perfectly plotted and very absorbing. I didn't put it down from the moment I picked it up. The artwork has the right amount of depth to it, everything skillfully rendered and cleanly done, nothing cartoonish. The story is more spooky and suspenseful than frightening, with a protagonist that's completely believable. This is not for children but young adults/teens would not have a hard time relating to Anya. Most adults would also find themselves very quickly hooked on this quirky, enjoyable read.

review by
Mary Harvey

29 September 2012

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