Washing the Dead by Shelagh Weeks

Review by Ruth Calway

In the background of one of Lucien Freud’s family groups is a tap over a sink just like the one on the cover of Washing the Dead. Open the book as you might open up your gaze upon his subjects, and there we are, awkward, vulnerable, far from idealized in our time worn domestic settings; but real.

The title story is an original and arresting embodiment of this particular writer’s art and craft, and works well as the overture to the collection.

‘Mostly, you can make life happen by imagining,’ says Ellen. ‘It’s true,’ she says to the dead woman whose body tells her secrets, ‘that the dead can live again. But . . . Is it my version or theirs, you want?’

This direct address is a startling reminder of how we re-create ourselves in eternal paradigms, and we discern in these stories a work of yarn and hook, a troubling ‘drawing out’ of mythical patterns and connections. ‘How close life and death are,’ whispers Beth towards the end of ‘Holes’, and there is inevitability that does not preclude surprise; the truth, after all, tends to steal up on you, like your own shadow.

Theft, subtle in operation, one life to another, is perhaps the secret thread running through the book, but fire and water are bold motifs, maintaining an elemental connection story to story. Tom (‘Fires’) ‘never realised how erotic such things could be, how the tang of lust grew saltier with self-denial.’ ‘Drowning’, a little masterpiece of yearning so palpable the reader can feel the current, washes into the senses more than our own memories might dare.

 ‘Up on the shifting raft . . . the heat of the sun pressed into the greying planks . . . and when I sat down, legs over the side, I noticed how a strange shadow like a creature circled my set costume, as if the wood had taken parts of me into itself. . . .’

Yet as in Freud, such intensity is rooted in the everyday. In ‘Rage’, Ruth notices the afternoon light upon the beech tree and the heads of the honesty even as she is murder-intent.

Characters come to us inside-out, raw, inheritance and consciousness showing, and the period detail and landscapes are not so much evoked as invoked. But memory, with all ‘its echoes and overlappings . . .’ is a lonely business. Maggie, in ‘Premature’, understands that even as midwife, witness, bringing raw life into the world, her truth would still only be ‘conjured from that night or that day’s apprehension of things.’

This is generous writing that in its lack of sentimentality is strangely liberating, giving relief from spurious, modern myth – the supposed fulfilment of work and motherhood; humanism without spirituality; a liberality that continues to lose as much as it has gained. Real men and women live ordinary lives of function and dysfunction, speaking of our essential isolation in the midst of common human experience in such a recognisable way you want to cry out yes! That’s it, that’s how it is. With a quality of beauty in her writing, Shelagh Weeks achieves an authenticity which is startling in its resemblance to something we recognise – as us.

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