Book Review: Washing The Dead

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Many thanks to Prospect Park Books for sending us a copy of Washing The Dead.  This is a heartfelt debut novel written by author Michelle Brafman, and I’m proud to say that I actually got to meet Ms. Brafman at a book signing.  She was just as genuine as her novel, and it was such a pleasure to hear her read a portion of this compassionate story.

Washing The Dead is about family.  It examines everything from religious traditions to the ache of true forgiveness.  The characters of this novel are raw and hurt, and by the time you reach the last page, they will all feel like family.  A smidgen dysfunctional, but family nevertheless.

At the heart of this story is Barbara Blumfield, a suburban Milwaukee woman whose entire life has been colored by a strained relationship with her mother.  Unable to forgive her mother for the trespasses of long ago, Barbara forces herself to march through life with a stiff upper lip.  The trouble with this, however, is that her anger begins to swallow her whole, and it muddies Barbara’s self perception and her relationships.  Barbara has a loving husband and a challenging teenage daughter, which help to provide a strong foundation for her to face her family’s demons (or her perception of them) and move forward.  Alas, Barbara is stuck in a bitter muck and the reader knows that the weight of the world will only be lifted when Barbara permits it.  I kept thinking of that phrase that hate is like swallowing poison and waiting for someone else to die.  While Barbara did not hate her mother, she certainly allowed her hurt feelings to overtake her persona.

This was actually my only complaint about the novel.  The navel gazing that Barbara conducted was exhausting, and I grew weary of her whining.  She became consumed by self pity and anger, and even her closest family members could feel it. When a dear family friend passes away and Barbara is invited to participate in one of the oldest Jewish rituals of her religious community, she must look beyond her own perceptions and launch the powerful process of healing.

It didn’t matter right now.  I would put my feelings toward the rebbetzin aside and perform Mrs. Kessler’s tahara.  According to my Google research, the tahara is the purest possible act of kindness because the recipient can never pay you back.  (p. 49)

The act of kindness that Barbara references here is the washing of the dead.  I must confess that I had never encountered this ritual before, and I found myself to be somewhat overcome by the process.  Washing the dead is exactly that, but the act is one of pure love.  In truth, I’m not sure if I could do such a thing.  It would be emotionally overwhelming.  But what a beautiful tribute to those you love the most.  In preparing them for their afterlife, you are given the enviable opportunity to say goodbye with all your heart.  I still get chills thinking about the beautiful ritual, and thank Ms. Brafman for bringing it to my attention.

While I had issues with several characters of this book, the fact that it bursts with love is why I’m now left with a sweet sense of closure.  Brafman painted the people of this novel with an exquisite hand, offering powerful backstories and limitless empathy.  Barbara as a child will remind you of every awkward moment in your past, and Barbara as an adult will remind you to be the best version of yourself.  Life is too short for anger.  If you’re blessed enough to be part of someone’s life until the moment when they move on, then there’s every reason in the world to fill yourself with compassion.  Well done.

4 stars for Washing The Dead.  I look forward to Michelle Brafman’s next novel.

Literary Hoarders Elizabeth