Guest Reviewer: Jessica Handler
Salt for Their Wounds
Girls and women mourn. They wail like sirens, cry culverts of tears. Mothers teach daughters to weep, but running dry equals abandonment. A girl without tears is a failure.
In the novel Open Me, by Sunshine O’Donnell (MacAdam Cage 2007), a secret society of women earns their living by mourning extravagantly at strangers’ funerals. Young Mem, perhaps the last professional wailer, and her mother Celeste, a mourner diva, ply their trade with aunts and female cousins in present-day Pennsylvania. Mother and daughter inhabit a worn home where Celeste’s suitcase sits beside the front door; an unspoken threat and promise to Mem, tormented to tears by the thought of life without her mother.
Mem’s father is long gone and un-missed. Mem is a schoolgirl when the story begins, and men are outsiders. Hector Paul, the funeral director who alerts Wailers to jobs, an unpleasant old man at funerals with “lopsided nostrils … lined with a hard yellow crust,” desirous of witnessing her talents in private, and a little boy humiliated by grief at his father’s funeral who appears later in the novel as an adult cop at Mem’s door, unwilling to acknowledge her hypnotic power in his childhood grief are empty of meaning for Mem. None penetrate her inner life.
Mourning and prostitution are blood sisters in Open Me. Women exploit their fluids, cries, and faux emotional nakedness for hard cash. O’Donnell doesn’t skirt the sex and death parallel. Mem’s blunt acceptance of her tradition conveys pride in her talent and unique pedigree, even as she discovers daytime television at the home of an exalted – and retired - Wailer, or scorns brightly dressed neighborhood girls who leave their homes to attend school.
Professional mourners existed in ancient cultures, but in Open Me, O’Donnell weaves a fugitive history for the profession. Between narrative chapters are newspaper features about abandoned girls, Edwardian texts for novices advising against “slipshod comprehension of the Seven Primary Tones,” and love poems to unattainable Wailers. This secret world’s ephemera brings us into Mem’s dilemma. Wailing is all she knows, but like us, she wonders who would she be, free from her culture?
My quibbles with O’Donnell’s debut novel are small. Mem’s family and background seem to be Italian: her aunt and mother tell tales of the ancient Via Salaria – the salt road. Yet, between the women there’s a great deal of kvetching in Yiddish. There are plenty of Italian Jews – the word for “Jewish” in Italian is Hebraica – but the old shtetl stereotypes grate. O’Donnell has created a delicate world for her wailers, balanced like a lump in a throat or the float in a coffin maker’s level. Fanny Brice these women are not.
The exalted Wailer who now makes her living as a fortune-teller (another clever riff on lying for money), and Mem’s own mother’s deceit, in the end, allow Mem a kind of freedom, and a confrontation with legitimate grief.
In Open Me, the message is ultimately a true one. When we grieve, we often weep for ourselves.
About the reviewer: Jessica Handler's first book, a memoir titled Invisible Sisters is forthcoming from Public Affairs Books in 2009. She received a Special Mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.