It’s always a shock to uncover some previously unknown portion of a parent’s past, and Washing the Dead is structured around such a bombshell. The novel, by Glen Echo author Michelle Brafman, culminates in a string of revelations about the mother of narrator Barbara, revelations that come too late to undo how Barbara’s identity was formed and perhaps poisoned by what she didn’t know. She’s brought to forgiveness in part because of her own child; another title for this book could have been Mothers and Daughters.
Set in a Milwaukee Orthodox Jewish community, this montage-like novel flips back and forth in time, focusing on Barbara’s mother’s infidelity: “My mother had taught me how to walk out on someone in need,” Barbara says, fitting herself into the role of the needy one. The rift between her mother and her family gaped open when Barbara was a teenager: “This is the first disappearance that I remember, but now I know that her leaving was gradual, an accretion of tiny moments that led to her affair and her slow exit from our lives. You don’t just up and walk out on a family without preparing properly.”
The story slowly discloses the deep emotional wounds that made it untenable for Barbara’s mother to live with her orthodontist husband and remain tethered to her Orthodox shul. Indeed, these characters are so wrapped up in religion, and their religious world seems so claustrophobic, it’d be hard for most nonreligious readers to relate to them. Still, Brafman’s depictions of grief and anxiety stand on their own: “After I said good-bye I bawled my eyes out. When I finished, I was harder inside.”
The novel’s middle, at first an apparent digression into Barbara’s life as a nanny in San Diego (where, expelled from her Orthodox world, she fits in with Gentiles) turns out to be a key piece of her character, revealing how she came to resemble her mother by dropping out of people’s lives with no explanation. The chapters keep flipping forward to her relationship with a rabbi’s wife and her musings on her sense of loss after leaving the Orthodox community. In those future years, Barbara attempts to repair such ruptures, meeting with almost unbelievable success. The characters in Barbara’s world are exceedingly forgiving; like her mother, the narrator draws a bit of a blank when it comes to empathy for those she’s damaged.
This is not a happy book. It is about the agony of ordinary events and life in an unhappy family. And each unhappy family, as Tolstoy once wrote, is unhappy in its own way. Not surprisingly, Barbara’s narrative ends with “the tears of our people. Only God can dry those tears.” There is closure, but not an end to the suffering.
Brafman reads May 9 at Politics & Prose.