I mentioned The Undertaker’s Daughter in my post about ‘simplifying women’ in book titles. Kate Mayfield is more than just the daughter of an undertaker, of course; but the title is warranted here as this book covers the first part of her life, when she mostly lived at home, and when her father was an overwhelming presence in her life. His being an undertaker influenced so many factors of her life that to identify herself as his daughter above everything else is in fact justified in the context of this memoir. Her early life was not an ordinary one. Brought up in a funeral home, living above dead bodies and all too aware of the proximity of the embalming room to family life, young Kate had a familiarity with death that most of us could never achieve, if that is the word. Only when she grew older and understood more about loss and the grim details of death did she start to feel truly uneasy about all the death in her house. For her and her family, death really was a part of everyday life.
We learn so much about the Mayfield family in this book – their secrets and lies, their bad behaviour, and their deep sadnesses – all through Kate; but even at the end of the book I did feel that I really knew her, or any of them. However I do not mean this as a criticism of Kate Mayfield’s ability as a writer or a memoirist. Rather I think it is a personality trait, a symptom of the Mayfields’ early family life that a distance is always present, a certain limit to how close anyone is allowed to get to anyone else. This is also probably because, despite this being a personal memoir of childhood, we are still readers, strangers, and the family has a right to retain some privacy and secrecy. I had spent time with them, looked into their life, but I knew that it was theirs, and not mine.
Limits, distance, secrecy – these are recurring themes throughout The Undertaker’s Daughter. Set in Kentucky in the 1960s and 70s, the book details many of the prejudices and social barriers of the world in which young Kate grows up. From her secret teenage relationships with African American boys, to her mother’s tolerance of her father’s drinking and adultery, to her sister’s mental illness, Kate Mayfield is remarkably frank and honest in her account of her youth. She describes the most difficult family scenes with unflinching clarity, the distance of time helping to strip away the muddiness of emotional turmoil. I admired her willingness to say, yes, this is what happened, this is what we had to deal with. She is matter of fact, but not without feeling. Her tone when speaking about these more difficult things suggests a wealth of feeling that has now ‘calmed’ over time and has been processed by her adult self.
That said, there is a lot of happiness in The Undertaker’s Daughter too. Kate’s friendship with her younger sister Jemma is particularly sweet, as is the family’s relationship with Miss Agnes, the resident’ rich eccentric’ in their town who has not only a wonderful personality but also a truly remarkable life story. This book is a memoir of a childhood, but it is also a portrait of a place at a certain time, a world that is now completely changed. It is the life that came before, and it is the foundation on which the present in built – for Kentucky, but also for Kate Mayfield.
For a memoir to be worth reading, to be of interest, it must tell the story of a remarkable life. Kate Mayfield’s is certainly that. I loved this book.
Published in August 2014 by Simon & Schuster. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.