Monday, 6 October 2014

The Undertaker's Daughter

The Undertaker's Daughter
Rating: 5/5
Buy or Borrow: Buy
Source: Copy courtesy of the Publisher!

In The Undertaker's Daughter, Kate Mayfield shows us what it was like living in a small town, in a funeral home as a daughter of an undertaker. The setting is 1960's Jubilee in Kentucky, having moved there, her father became the second of two white morticians in a town where segregation was alive and well, a town that was God fearing, loved to gossip, and where vindictive men could gang up to play out their petty vengeances. We're introduced to some odd characters and their, at times, even odder families, family feuds, and victims of various accidents or suicides. Through the eyes of a young Kate we see her love for her father grow and then change when she hits her teens and realizes he's not the man she thought he was all her life. We also watch Kate's father quietly deteriorate thanks to alcoholism, watch a lonely old woman's final gift to her father be destroyed by a pathetic and petty man, and watch her sister become more abusive by the day.

I'm trying very hard to put what I'm feeling about this book in to words, I mean the vast majority of the time I forgot this was a memoir and that all what happens in the book happens in real life....I genuinely forgot. It reads like a novel, it's fast paced, it's slick, there's intrigue and mystery, there's hardships there's everything a novel requires, but it's ALL true and I can't be the only one who was sucked in to the world of the memoir and totally thought they where reading a novel.

I mean you can probably tell from the synopsis that I got pretty riled up while reading it. I mean that Fletcher bloke, I really wanted to punch him in the face, he was such a pathetic, vile little man out for vengeance, who took their inheritance, one that they didn't ask for, and kept pushing and pushing until it was taken away from them, he just bowled over a lonely old ladies last wishes because he felt he was entitled to the house and being inside it. I mean....seriously you can probably feel my disgust, rage and general loathing for him seeping out of the screen. He's kind of the perfect villain.....and he was a real person. Oh yes folks, this memoir shows us that not all villains reside in books and movies or on the news. What a despicable person. I applaud Mayfield for not throwing his ass out of the viewing.

I'm not sure what I was expecting when reading, I wasn't expecting it to be all happy, and sunshine and rainbows, but even I wasn't expecting her sister Evelyn's behaviour. I mean, I've never read anything like it and it was truly saddening to me, how she treated her siblings, how she got away with it with her manipulations and how they never got an apology. What was even sadder was that she wouldn't be diagnosed for years because at the time, mental illness wasn't really acknowledged.

I found the history tidbits fascinating. You get a first hand account of what living in a bible belt place was like during segregation, and subsequently, integration. It's so baffling to someone like me, at the time, that everyone was kept separate and there was all this taboo, it's sometimes hard to picture, so to read about a first hand account was fascinating. I was also fascinated by the WW2 elements her father's life brought, particularly the letter he sent that is included in the epilogue. Again, PTSD wasn't something that was known of? Acknowledged? I'm not entirely sure, back in the time Mayfield's father fought in the war, and he had no help to deal with it, while he may have seemed to be coping, it comes out that he wasn't really, and again, in this day and age, it's mind boggling that he received no help or treatment and was just left to muddle on through. I found the letter I just mentioned particularly fascinating, and I had such a moment when reading it, I had to remind myself that this was a real letter, about real events, and was from a real persons point of view. It sounds silly to keep reaffirming that I was apparently stupid enough to forget it's not fiction, but it genuinely seems like it's a novel. I mean, reading about an event in the war I had no previous knowledge of, and a heartbreaking one at that, really explains her father more, and brings such a sadness upon you when it really sinks in what he went through.

The prose was truly vivid, and I'm still not quite over the story. It was at times sad, at others funny, frequently witty and very insightful in to all manner of things, not just history wise. Being the history geek I am, naturally I pick those out. My father is fascinated with WW2 and his collection of books on the subject really helped me out in school with history projects, so when I get a chance, I think I might show him certain parts of the book pertaining to that, that he'd find fascinating.

The epilogue is a collection of all the mysteries answered. What happened to her siblings, what happened with the court case (which really really angered me, sorry but it did) and the mystery that was her fathers wound. For me, this really made me think. Mayfield's father keeps his wound and how it happened a secret, sure she finds out but she still doesn't know the cause of the altercation, and never will, and it made me wonder, somewhat morbidly I would imagine, just what secrets family members I thought I knew aaaalll about, took to the grave with them.

Mayfield's accounts of the people of the town and her struggle to leave it behind made for heart wrenching and gripping reading. Logically you know she did leave, but at the time of reading you're gripped, wondering is she will. It's a fantastic coming of age story, set against a unique and fascinating background that covers such historically wrought times, that just so happens to be true.

I'm at a loss to fully describe how incredible a read this book is, it's a struggle not to review this as if it where simply fiction. Mayfield expertly brings you in to the world of her childhood and teenage years. I have nothing but respect for Kate Mayfield for how she handled things such as the incident with her sister, how she managed to live with a person such as that, how she managed to survive living in a town that suffocating, to get out of said town and how she has managed to convey her life experiences in a novel such as this, laying bare her secrets, her families secrets and her fathers secrets. These secrets all unfold over the course of an exquisitely written book.

I have to also mention, a little detail I loved. At the end of most of the chapters, there would be a little "In Memoriam" section,  each mentioning a different death in the town, some more heart breaking than others, all described by Mayfield who knew each person, and all served to help the town come alive from the pages that little bit more.

I literally can't stop rambling and gushing about this richly told memoir (see I got another note of praise in there), so I'm going to leave it here before I can gush even more, I'm sure by now you get my point about what a fantastic read this is!

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