Reviewed by Becky Benoit
Funerals and burial ceremonies are important. Even in today’s age of technology and super-sanitized death rituals which separate those of us still living completely from the realities of death itself, we still find comfort and peace in the traditional ceremonies we perform for the dead, from the heartfelt eulogies and celebrations of life to the burial rites performed at the cemetery itself. We acknowledge that these customs are primarily for the benefit of the living – after all, the dead person probably doesn’t much care whether you serve cucumber sandwiches or salmon at their wake – but what if these death rituals were just as important for the dead themselves, more than just a final act of respect and love but a vitally important safeguarding ritual which allows them to sleep quietly in their graves?
This is the world that author Melissa Marr has imagined, a gentler take on the typical zombie tale of ravenous walking dead which has become so popular these days.
In the small town of Claysville, Maylene Barrow is known as “the graveminder.” The old woman has performed quiet ceremonies by the fresh graves of the town’s recently deceased for decades, and has carefully tended to each and every grave in the months after anyone dies. No one in Claysville seems to find this behaviour odd, but then again, there is much about the town itself that is unusual. People never seem to get sick – diseases such as cancer or diabetes simply don’t seem to exist within the town limits. Babies are born in Claysville with eerily regularity, seeming to follow some kind of predetermined plan. No one ever leaves, at least for very long. And when someone does die, they are always brought home to Claysville and put to rest, following a strange set of archaic burial laws that refuse embalming, cremation or any other type of modern burial practice.
Rebekkah Barrow, Maylene’s stepdaughter, has always felt like a bit of an outsider in Claysville. When her teenaged stepsister Ella commits suicide, an act which tears the family apart, Rebekkah can’t wait to get out of Claysville. The strange pull she feels to her sister’s boyfriend Byron, combined with the guilt from those feelings, drives her to a rootless existence, floating from city to city and never quite settling down. But when her grandmother is suddenly murdered, Rebekkah is forced to return to Claysville and confront the many secrets that have lain half-hidden for generations.
Rebekkah’s grandmother played a role that has been repeated with every generation of Barrow women since the town first forged an agreement with Death himself, a mysteriously charming gentleman known only as Charles or “Mr. D.” As graveminder, it was Maylene’s job to put the dead safely to sleep, and the job of her closest partner, the town undertaker, to help her travel safely between the land of the living and the land of the dead. As Rebekkah discovers, it was the heavy weight of this responsibility, along with the strange allure the world of the dead seems to hold for all graveminders, that killed Ella.
Something terrible is afoot in Claysville. Somehow, one of the dead has escaped Maylene’s careful ministrations and is running amok in the town, feeding on innocent townspeople and growing stronger all the time. Rebekkah must decide whether she’s strong enough to take on the role of graveminder for the town, joining with Byron as her undertaker, and save Claysville from being overrun with hungry dead, desperate to feed on the living.
I liked the premise of this book, but unfortunately, Marr’s construction of two parallel worlds, where the living and the dead coexist, just doesn’t come together well enough to make this zombie novel believable. There are far too many loose ends left fluttering – how and why did the town come to make such an unholy agreement in the first place? Why are some of the now-deceased Barrow women so angry, even in death? – and the reader is left feeling confused and adrift. And frankly, the romance between Rebekkah and Byron seems so painfully contrived, Marr’s attempt at love in the world of the zombies just doesn’t hold up, not even for the teenage readers who I assume she’s aiming for, who are a generally forgiving audience.
If you’re looking for a new take on the classic zombie apocalypse story, I’d suggest you keep looking. This one starts out with promise as a creepy Gothic ghost story but gets far too hung up in the details.