THE UNDERTAKER'S DAUGHTER
By Kate Mayfield. (Gallery, 348 pages, $24.99.)
A memoirist's challenge is not for the faint of heart: Make me care. Because however much writers may want or need to tell their story, their most interested audience may be themselves. Kate Mayfield approaches this hurdle with a great advantage. She's the daughter of an undertaker. How can that not hold some promise? But she also soars with her material, while remaining firmly grounded in her story of growing up in Jubilee, Ky., in the 1960s.
Mayfield describes her family and the townspeople with a frank, sometimes funny eye that never strains credulity. Instructed early in the art of blending in, so as not to distract grieving families that stream to her father's funeral home (which also is the family's home), she observes the rituals of death with an honest curiosity that her father, whom she adores, nurtures. But she also tracks the rituals of race, envy, greed and gossip with the same honest assessment.
Most notably, Mayfield's clear, clean writing style manages to make it seem as though we really are seeing Jubilee through the eyes of a child and then of a teen, rather than through a grownup's remembered lens. When she does bring the story into her own adulthood, where some suspected secrets finally are revealed, it's almost startling, and necessary — but also less interesting. Wisely, she knows when to stop. "The Undertaker's Daughter" is a glimpse into history and culture and death. But it's also a story that made me care about how Mayfield got through her days.
By Kim Thúy. (Vintage Canada, 139 pages, $15.95.)
Like a perfect bite of jackfruit chè, "Mãn," Kim Thúy's meditation on language, dislocation and love, leaves a resonance of sweetness and longing when it is done.
Mãn, the novel's main character, is a child of war. Born to an unwed mother, she is rescued by a Buddhist nun and raised by "Maman," a spy for the Viet Cong. "She has a hole in her calf," Mãn says of her third mother at the beginning of the book, "I have a hole in my heart."
The narrative unfolds in a series of short scenes, each wrapping around a sense memory or the sound of a Vietnamese or French word. Through Mãn's eyes we see a snow of grated coconut flakes falling on a banana leaf, mangos blossoming under a knife, the familiar scent of chopped lemongrass at a resistance farm.
Mãn has fled Vietnam for a new life as a wife and owner of a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal. She has spent years erasing her identity, making herself invisible, anticipating the needs of others. When she falls into an affair with Luc, a Parisian chef, she is struck with a sudden desire to live in the present, to be seen for the first time.
As Mãn stumbles between languages, cultures, families, trying to make meaning of this late blooming of her heart, no one escapes unscathed.
The wreckage of war is threaded all through the lives of these characters. But this poetic, dreamy novel is most concerned with how the survivors make a life.