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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Embalmer

Anne-Renée Caillé

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To purchase The Embalmer

Title: The Embalmer
Author: Anne-Renée Caillé
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 91 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Embalmer - US
The Embalmer - UK
The Embalmer - Canada
L'embaumeur - Canada
L'embaumeur - France
  • French title: L'embaumeur
  • Translated by Rhonda Mullins

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Our Assessment:

B : slim, fairly effective volume of close-up encounter(s) with death

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In The Embalmer a daughter asks her father about his onetime-occupation, a way to learn more about him, and about death. The book is apparently autobiographical; ostensibly a novel (it was a contender for the Rendez-vous du premier roman prize), it is also a personal, almost documentary account.
       The book is presented in short chapters -- a page or two in length --, each a series of short sentences and paragraphs, these separated by a space to make each observation and utterance stand out even more. It is not so much a dialogue between 'he' and 'I', but rather a record, roughly chronological, the narrator occasionally coming to the fore -- a chapter in which she explains, as its heading notes: 'I hate viewings' -- but mostly focused on the father's recollections. The narrator sometimes refers to their exchange as an interview, and the father comes prepared -- "He has a list of cases in hand", one chapter-heading explains, and so: "For the first time we talk about cases other than by pure recall".
       It's a subjective account, refracted through the narrator (e.g.: "It's a beginning, the one I have chosen -- anyway, it doesn't tell the whole story. I am not him"). The daughter is curious about both father and dealing with the dead, but maintains:

This is not an investigation. I am not studying him. I am looking at what can be seen.
       She is curious -- about what drew him to becoming an embalmer (it wasn't the family business, she notes), what it involved, and, ultimately, what led him away from it (as he eventually gave it up: "what I call walking away", she writes).
       There's also a lingering uncertainty, of just how personal to be, of how neutral a narrative position she wants to (or can) take: "And I am still wondering what I should call him. By him, I mean my father", she admits in one chapter heading.
       The father was fascinated by death and corpses from a young age, and started working at the local funeral parlour when he was fifteen. He explains what the job involved, and the effort -- and, often, great difficulties -- in making the deceased presentable again. Many of the chapters are brief, succinct case studies, especially of the more complicated situations: dealing with AIDS deaths, once those start appearing ("He looked for numbers. 1984, three, four cases. 1985, maybe triple that number. 1986, people stop counting"); the cases of corpses that are only recovered after a longer period of time, as well as corpses otherwise disfigured; the corpses hollowed-out by organ harvesting for medical purposes (and the one eel-story ...).
       Families are often insistent about their loved ones being made presentable -- often a great challenge -- or otherwise properly prepared. In one case, a body has been so badly burnt in a car accident -- "There is no more body, the bones are blackened and brittle" -- that he refuses the family's wish to dress the corpse, but:
At the funeral home, the family will force the casket, will put clothes on a charred corpse. The casket will be closed again.
       There are numerous notable episodes -- the car accident killing seven or eight, in a place where there's, on average, just one dead every month ("the trigger, he says", of his fascination), the bullet-riddled body of the notorious criminal who had been on the run -- and several revealing personal stories: the man who hanged himself with a knife in his pocket "because he wasn't sure he wanted to die" who nevertheless miscalculates; the woman who burns down her house; the many who throw themselves in front of the subway ("Most don't die. They are disabled for life"). Unsurprisingly, there are numerous tragic, poignant cases he has to deal with. And there's also discussion of some of the technical and other details: "When a baby is cremated, there are no ashes. There is nothing left", for example, or the ugly reality of necrophilia.
       It's a quite fascinating, though unavoidably dark and often quite raw collection of information and experiences, the near-neutral tone keeping it from being particularly grisly though it certainly still often makes for difficult reading. The presentation -- short chapters, paragraphs, sentences, with lots of spacing -- add to the almost skeletal feel to the story -- which does have an interesting personal arc, even as the latter stages, after the father has moved on from embalming, are only very quickly sketched out; the more personal and close confrontations-with-death of the parents at the book's conclusion nicely add to the resonance of the story -- even as the narrator can barely address it, the book's closing words:
I'll come back to that, I will have to come back to that, see what I come up with.
       So, indeed, the entire work can look and seem like the foundation, the notes, for a more substantial reckoning -- though Caillé's careful phrasing and structuring nevertheless makes for an already robust text that, even at its less than a hundred pages, packs quite some force.
       The Embalmer is a small, but quite successful volume -- but readers should be aware that it is also very much an up-close look at death (and decay and the like), which not everyone might find easy to stomach.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 December 2018

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The Embalmer: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Anne-Renée Caillé was born in 1983.

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