Yes, death is the last frontier. In my circles, even friends who talk about sex, politics, and that most forbidden of topics, paychecks, rarely talk about the nitty-gritty of death. That's something we save for our own private hells or heavens.
This is the opening to MacKinnon's novel, Tethered.:
I plunge my finger between the folds of the incision, then hook my forefinger deep into her neck. Unlike most of the bloodlines, which offer perfunctory resistance, the carotid artery doesn't surrender itself willingly. Tethered between the heart and the head, the sinewy tube is often weighted with years of plaque, thickening its resolve to stay. More so now that rigor mortis has settled deep within the old woman.
Probably even those who, because of culture or religion, are comfortable with the notion of death -- thinking it a walk into a better place -- avoid the actual physical notions of our bodies decay after we take our last breath. What happens to our now soulless bodies? These secrets are reserved for those who work in this secret landscape.
A walk into that room where death goes, that's just a portion of what Amy Mackinnon offers in Tethered, but, oh, what a gift that is. Clear cool writing and a gripping story, which forced me to turn the pages perhaps faster than I should, took me on a captivating ride. There was not an instance of MEGO (my eyes glaze over.)
Clara Marsh prepares the dead with respect and love while living a life so quiet that she might as well be one of them. Her (slowly revealed) traumatic past leads her to live a frozen life, until a neglected at-risk little girl forces her to choose between the living and the dead.
MacKinnon's story pulled me along, her writing enchanted me on the journey, and then, her skillfully braided research into the world of the basement of a funeral home made that most fearful of visits, in some miraculous feat of literature, less forbidding.
One would wish to have a Clara for their last appointment with the living.
Reading Tethered allows you to think that perhaps, just perhaps, this grace may be offered.
I grew up without religious training (is that the right word?) pomp or circumstance. When my father died at the age of 35, my sister and I were kept away from the funeral. A year later, we were allowed to attend the unveiling (a Jewish custom described in Wikipedia as where "a cloth or shroud covering that has been placed on the headstone is removed, customarily by close family members." We stood off to the side, two confused little girls. My mother, divorced from my father before his death, was not there.
After the ceremony, my aunt brought us into the bathroom. In one of those seared-into-the-memory moments, she said, "So, girls, now you know about death."
But of course, we didn't. No one does in any inarguable way (though I think the comfort of a believed-in pre-ordained heaven/hell offers some relief from terror) and with the cleansed society we live in here, we rarely even glimpse the manners of death.
Amy Mackinnon took a courageous leap in presenting us with a layered vision of the here -- where we see the earth-bound steps taken after fatality, the hereafter, where she visits her visions, and, perhaps most difficult of all, the evils that presage violent death. Few of us (or do I mean me?) are willing to linger in the company of mortality. Mackinnon's genius lies in her gentling the reader through this world we so fear without forcing us to turn away.
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