Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: Washing the Dead by Michelle Brafman

We are all part of communities. It can be reassuring to be a part of a community, whether it be one we chose or one we were born into. We feel belonging and acceptance in communities. We understand and cherish the traditions and rituals of the groups to whom we belong. In fact, often times our communities define us. So if we are exiled from a community, we find ourselves adrift, hurt, and rejected. In Michelle Brafman's new novel, Washing the Dead, main character Barbara Blumfield must examine the severed bonds of community in order to find forgiveness for her mother and for herself.

Alternating mainly between the mid-1970s and 2009, Barbara Pupnick Blumfield tells the story of her Orthodox Jewish youth, the rupture that pushed her family away from their community, her strained relationship with her mother, and the more secular Jewish life she's created as an adult. As Barbara struggles to mother her own troubled teenaged daughter Lili, she must examine the things that influenced her to become the woman and mother that she is. She reflects on the way that her own mother failed her, abandoning the family through depression and the sadness of her unshared, secret past, and the way that her mother continues to abandon her, disappearing into an ever increasing Alzheimer's fog. It is in examining her memories of her teenaged years that she faces the life-altering rupture from the Orthodox community she knew and loved and all the reasons behind her long exile from that safe and comfortable community of her childhood. When the rebbetzin of the shul in Milwaukee calls on the middle-aged Barbara, telling her that her mentor Mrs. Kessler has died and offers to have Barbara participate in washing the body, a final act of love, preparing Mrs. Kesssler for burial, it allows Barbara to start her search for answers about her own youth even as she deals with Lili's rebellion in the face of a season ending sports injury.

This is a coming of age novel, even though Barbara long ago became an adult. But in the present, she can see how the early inversion of the mother-daughter dynamic between she and her mother colored so much of her life. As a girl she tried to protect her mother from sorrows and trespassings without understanding the impetus behind any of it. And as her mother loses her memories to the ravages of disease, she cannot fully piece together the secret history of her family that exacerbated her mother's descent into deep depression without the help of those whom she holds liable for so much hurt. The narrative moves fluidly forwards and backwards through time, detailing the long ranging impact and the ripples that continue to push outward even in Barbara's present. The story is a quiet one. Barbara as a character sometimes comes across as far younger than she really is, still just learning to accept imperfections in those she loves. The storyline with Lili is very secondary and therefore doesn't quite compliment the whole as well as it might have. But Brafman has given us a well developed inside look at an orthodox community and the women in it, their failings and their love, in the primary storyline. Writing movingly of connection, the pain over a loss of culture, and the power of forgiveness, this book offers an unusual insight into a complex, generally reserved, and separate community.

Thanks to the publisher and LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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