Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review of Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician by Michelle Williams (Constable, 2010)

Fancying a change from working as a health care assistant, Michelle Williams decides to apply for a job as a mortuary technician.  She survives the preliminary interview where she’s watches her first body be eviscerated and is successful in the formal interview.  What follows is hands-on, on-the-job training, that wouldn’t be for the faint hearted.  Over the course of the year she learns how to deal with the dead and their surviving relatives.  And all manner of bodies pass across the mortuary table, meeting their maker in a variety of ways from natural deaths to tragic suicides to bizarre accidents.

Down Among the Dead Men is a curious read.  Some of it is fascinating, especially the various stories relating to the different deaths, the work of the mortuary team, and their interrelationships.   Some of it is mundane and lacking in any real depth or insight, mostly relating to Williams’ home life.  The writing in general is weak and flat and lacking spark, humour, meaningful reflexivity and some contextual history relating to mortuary business.  The narrative feels more like a stream of structured anecdotes rather than crafted story telling.  Indeed, this is a long way from autobiographical yarns of James Herriott or Gerald Durrell.  The cover quote states: ‘What is it like to work in a mortuary? Nothing like you’d expect, actually ...’  Actually, it was exactly like I expected and there are no great insights revealed by the book.  Overall, the fascinating stuff just about saves the book, but it could have been so much more in the hands of a skilled ghost writer.

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