Title: The Undertaker’s Daughter
Author: Kate Mayfield
Publisher: Gallery Books
Date of Publication: 13 January 2015
Number of Pages: 350
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Summary: What if the place you called “home” happened to be a funeral home? Kate Mayfield explores what it meant to be the daughter of a small-town undertaker in this fascinating memoir…
After Kate Mayfield was born, she was taken directly to a funeral home. Her father was an undertaker, and for thirteen years the family resided in a place nearly synonymous with death. A place where the living and the dead entered their house like a vapor. The place where Kate would spend the entirety of her childhood. In a memoir that reads like a Harper Lee novel, Mayfield draws the reader into a world of Southern mystique and ghosts.
In The Undertaker’s Daughter, Kate has written a triumph of a memoir. This vivid and stranger-than-fiction true story ultimately teaches us how living in a house of death can prepare one for life.
Review: My review is going to be the polar opposite to many of those already available to read. I don’t wonder if I missed the point as I don’t know there was much of a point to be made.
This book is strangely unsettling and not simply because Mayfield was raised in a funeral home. What unnerved me was the way she wrote about her family. Mayfield is very open when describing her relationship with her parents and her sisters and this is to be expected in a memoir, however, there came a point, a point I can’t put my finger on, when this moved into the realm of expose and tabloidism. The other part of this that made me uncomfortable was the writing style. In creating a memoir that reads as fiction, it raised the question of how much of this am I supposed to believe? If I wrote a book in this style my family would string me up. I can guarantee you, I would be disowned. Obviously, every family dynamic is different but the style doesn’t sit well with me.
Some reviewers have arguably felt the same as me when they write Mayfield’s work reminds them of Harper Lee ‘s To Kill A Mockingbird. They recognise the fictional overtones but ignore the dishonesty. To see how many other fictional books The Undertaker’s Daughter is likened to is a worry for me because it really does spark an element of mistrust.
Mayfield’s description of her sister Evelyn is cold. This is not to suggest it isn’t anything other than accurate, merely my observation.
Mayfield neglects for the majority of the book to reveal her age so working out whether she is a clever 6 year old or a struggling 15 year old is difficult. On the odd occasion when an age is given, I found myself thinking ‘really?’
Some of the “villains” in the book are not convincing just as some of the “heroes” are just regular people. This is very much a perspective point. The reader is never truly given enough context to decide on the character of a person.
Nothing really happens to Mayfield that makes her book extraordinary. Remove the funeral home and the inheritance and you have the stock standard story of millions of families around the world. Alcoholic, cheating spouse, struggling children, the sale of a business, familial deaths – all fairly standard.
The standout element of The Undertaker’s Daughter is the eyewitness account of southern America at the end of segregation and even then, I have misgivings. I never really believed Mayfield had any feelings for the boys she dated – it felt as though she were being deliberately contrary and provocative but that to, I guess, is the point of being 15.
Initially, I did try to read every word and given the book the attention it deserves because regardless of whether I liked the end product, a lot of time and effort has been spent on the final product. At the 60% mark, I must admit, I began to skim read and jump large portions. At 80% I nearly gave up completely.
It is very important that you, the reader of this blog, understand I am not in anyway trying to make less of Mayfield’s life. What started off as an interesting memoir has been let down by a lack of focus and an inaccurate promotional circuit which has to be laid at the door of the publisher. The only part I do hold Mayfield accountable for is not reporting the teacher who was molesting girls. It doesn’t matter what age or era or context, there is no excuse for letting people like this get away with their proclivities.
I’ve given this book 3 stars but only because I want some wriggle room for the other 10.5 months left in 2016. If I were reading this in November I wouldn’t have been so generous.