Review: Open Me by Sunshine O'Donnell
Monday, December 3, 2007
Open Me by Sunshine O'Donnell
$13 trade paper original
230 pages, ISBN: 1596922362
I can't recommend this book highly enough--it's elegant, informative, evocative, and truly moving. From the press release: "Mem is a wailer, a professional mourner hired to cry at funerals. One of the few remaining American girls in this secret, illegal profession, Mem hails from a long line of mourners, including her mother, a legendary master wailer hired for the most important funerals in her hometown of Philadelphia."
The book opens with a historical note from 2006 that sets the world and the story that we're about to enter. It introduces us to wailing in general, and Mirabelle (Mem) in particular.
"[...] Today, Mirabelle is in her twenties, although--as there is no legal documentation of her birth, life, or education--there is no way to confirm her actual age. Mirabelle continues to refuse to speak to the press and does not allow photographs. [...]"
We then move on to a brief interaction at a funeral where Mem was hired to mourn. This gives us a taste for the simple yet lyrical language Ms. O'Donnell uses to weave her tale, and drops us into a situation that itself weaves in and out of the story. It's a major event that drives much of the development of the story, although you don't see exactly how until the end.
This sets the structure for the rest of the novel, which is the tale of Mem's apprenticeship and eventual mastery: alternating between historical documents (letter fragments, poems, US senate bills, and more spanning thousands of years) and the narrative of her life.
Each chapter of Mem's story is meant to answer a question of the sort a wailer might be asked irrespective of their vow to not speak of such things--"Were you allowed to play like a normal child? Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever lived in hiding? What happens when you just can't cry?" Some of these questions are answered better than others--the story is more important than attempting to infodump any particular piece of information and/or conjecture.
Ms. O'Donnell does a beautiful job of getting inside Mem's head and making "a normal childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the 1980's" a truly surreal experience. We see everything through Mem's eyes, from simple interactions with the other girls of the neighborhood; to the games she plays with her cousin in their back yard; to her teenage interactions with her mother. Everything is just a little bit different, yet quite believable.
She says in the novel that death is something we're trained to ignore; and then keeps us focused on it throughout. Death has a central importance to the story, regardless of the immediate subject. Your own feelings about death, and death itself, cannot help being a part of the book as you read it, making it a very personal experience.
Again, from the press release: "Interweaving poetic prose and historical fact, Open me is an utterly original novel about mothers and daughters, dark underworlds, and the play between fact and fiction." I agree completely.
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