Verbally abusive mother raises daughter. Daughter internalizes abuse, waits for mother to die to release her from her hellish childhood. Now you know the general plot of “Open Me,” Sunshine O’Donnell’s first novel.
The work itself is decidedly less cheerful than the author’s name, but fascinating as it blends historical reports documenting the art and craft of professional wailing with the fictional story of Mem, a young girl raised to the profession on the East Coast in the Nineties.
“Open Me” offers a tantalizing glimpse into the life of women hired to show emotional distress at graveside. Here, Mem, like her predecessors, is brought up to supersede her mother, who taunts the child as worthless to provide fodder for tears. With her change of countenance from loving to raging, Mem’s mother makes the Wicked Witch of the West look cuddly. Isolated from all other children except wailers, with whom she competes to make a living, Mem comes of age, at a cost.
While the idea intrigues, the novel itself sputters for those hoping for a “heroine overcomes” plot. Instead, O’Donnell’s lyrical sentences and melancholy tone lull the reader into one morose state of mind, where references to modernity “ like 7-Eleven and ChapStick “ stand starkly out of place.