There’s no end to the misery in this dispiriting first novel featuring a funeral home, a child predator and a parade of victims.
Foremost among those victims is narrator Clara Marsh. When she was seven, her beloved mother was killed in a car crash. She went to live with her grandmother, a devout Catholic and avenging fury who called her daughter a whore for having so many lovers. (Some of them, like Clara’s unknown father, were black.) Life became hell. In high school, Clara was seduced by a football player, then raped by a succession of his buddies. She gave birth to a stillborn baby. The final humiliation came when her grandmother cut off all her hair. We learn all this in retrospect. At the novel’s opening, Clara is a young woman who has moved to a depressed blue-collar town in Massachusetts to work as an undertaker. Her boss Linus, a sweet, elderly black man, tries to be her surrogate father, but Clara cannot give or receive love, feeling herself tainted. Her hothouse flowers are her only refuge. Clara’s most heartbreaking assignment at the funeral home had been preparing the body of a small girl found in the woods, her severed head discovered the next day in a trash bag hidden nearby. At the burial of her unclaimed corpse, the pastor named the dead child Precious Doe. Now another neglected little girl, Trecie, is hanging around the funeral home, craving affection. Trecie goes missing and is spotted in a kiddie-porn movie, and the cops swing into action as Clara continues retrieving her dead clients from their invariably squalid surroundings. Funeral routines give way to melodrama as the killer reveals himself. There will be two, almost three murders before the end, but Clara’s loveless condition remains essentially unchanged despite a one-night stand with the investigating detective.
A more resourceful writer would have painted a less monochromatic world and offered her heroine some hope for change.