Book Review: Washing the Dead, by Michelle Brafman


Michelle Brafman doesn’t need my 5-coffee-bean review because she is a multi-award-winning author, including for Washing the Dead, her debut novel.  But it’s an extraordinary debut novel, several years old now, and I’d like to share a good story with you.

“Washing the Dead” refers to the Jewish ritual for washing the dead, “tahara.”  But the acts of tahara appear at the end of the story, the cleansing part.  The story is about Barbara, whom we see as a child, a young adult, a mother, and a teacher.  She is consumed with trying to know the story of her distant mother’s life, and the search literally drives her crazy.  Eventually, Barbara is brought back to earth, to be in the moment with her husband, her special-needs daughter, her brother, her ex-rabbi’s wife (“rebbetzin”), and her mother’s lover.  The final steps to losing her obsession with her mother’s life is the washing of two bodies, the first being a teacher and mentor whom Barbara loved dearly, and the second being June, her mother.

It wasn’t the story of June’s life that made Barbara crazy; it was the “checking out” times, when her mom would disappear, or take to her bed, or sit in the dark room of an indoor swimming pool, or run off to be with her lover.  It was the times that June was unavailable to her daughter that seemed both devastating and unforgiveable to Barbara, who desparately needed her mother’s attentions.  In Barbara’s eyes, June was the most important person in the world, with the rest of the world pale by comparison.

The story flips between time periods, which normally annoys me, but it is done beautifully in Washing the Dead.  A couple of things, literally, two things, confused me.  One was when Barbara visited the indoor pool room and says that her mother drowned in those waters.  It’s supposed to be metaphoric, but I took it literally and later realized my mistake.  The other was the name of her mother-in-law.  The woman’s name is Rose, but sometimes she is called Grose.  I thought it was a typo until I understood that “Grose” was short for Gramma Rose.

If I have to be true to my website and talk about the story’s travel adventures, well, twice,  Barbara leaves her home in Milwaukee to become a nanny to a couple in California.  California changes her outlook and her clothes from a frumpy, Orthodox Jewish girl, to a jeans-and-bikini young beachcomber.

There is much more to Barbara’s story in Michelle Brafman’s Washing the Dead, but NO MORE SPOILERS!   All I’ll say in conclusion is that I found it fascinating, and, sometimes, I just wanted to scream in frustration.

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