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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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Down Among the Dead Men: A Year In the Life of a Mortuary Technician

Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician - Michelle Williams

I listened to this on audio, which I think helped immensely because it's written so conversationally, with British slang and sentence construction. The narrator, Liz Holliss, is one of those thinking narrators, which means she essentially "interpreted" the informal speech for me as she went along.


I'm fascinated by mortuary science in general, and this gave an interesting view of the sort of experiences technicians in hospitals can expect to encounter. Mostly, they receive the bodies of patients who died while in the hospital, but they also participate in inquests and receive any cases from the county that were unexpected deaths (suicides, accidents, murder) or have no clear cause of death. It rarely occurs to us that there's a morgue in every hospital, where families go to view their deceased loved ones and autopsies are performed, despite the fact that we know all patients don't survive. The technicians are the ones who prepare the body for the pathologist, remove the "pluck," and assist with the details like weighing the organs and sewing the cadaver back up.


Michelle Williams got into the business somewhat on a lark. She was a "carer" for people with emotional and mental disabilities for thirteen years, and was tiring of the job. She wanted to stay in the National Health Service (NHS), because she had already paid nicely into her pension. An opening came up for a mortuary technician post and she applied, not realizing that the first "interview" was really a viewing of an autopsy. She survived that with enough aplomb to get the job. 


The book chronicles not only her life at the office, but her life at home with her family, as well. Ms. Williams is single but with a serious boyfriend, Luke, and owns two slightly misbehaved dogs she calls "the boys." She's close with her parents and her brother, and has a special bond with her grandfather. She leads a sort of "bro" life outside of work, watching rugby matches, going for long walks with the dogs, and especially drinking, drinking, and more drinking in pubs. A fair amount of Indian food is consumed as well.


The book captured my attention better when she wrote about interesting cases her team worked on, complete with medical details, but it was also sort of enlightening to see the bureaucracy of the NHS and hospital systems. (There's a chapter in which an obese cadaver, which won't fit in any of the fridge spaces, is left to rot for almost a week on the specimen table while they wait for a particular piece of paperwork to come through.) 




1. We have to hear about so much coffee drinking! I began to roll my eyes at the word "coffee." These technicians (Clive, Graham, and Michelle) take uncountable coffee breaks, and always guzzle pots of coffee when the mortuary is slow and they've done all the cleaning they can do. (Plus, don't they ever drink tea?)


2. A couple of times it seemed that the author wrote it originally under a pseudonym ("Francesca," perhaps?), and then decided to use her real name after all, but the copyeditor didn't catch all the changes before publication. In at least one instance her co-workers called her "Frankie" as a nickname (and later, another calls her "Frank" and she notices that he has shortened her nickname even further). Throughout the rest of the book, she uses the nickname "Shelly," which I assume is short for Michelle, her real name. 


3. Graham, a prominent co-worker in many of the early stories, injures himself while hunting part-way through the book, and he just sort of disappears. I'm sure that's how it happened in real life, but it's not very satisfying in a literary sense--it's like a dropped thread. Particularly because she introduces aspects of his character that you think might become important later, but you never hear of them again. For instance, when she mentioned that Graham used similar-sounding but incorrect words while he spoke (e.g. "defiantly" instead of "definitely," "poignant" in place of "pertinent", "skellington" instead of "skeleton") I thought we would later discover that he was in the beginning stages of dementia, and we'd have to say goodbye to him that way. There was also an uncomfortable party scene where Graham studiously ignored the young woman who replaced him in the mortuary after his injury, and I thought that would pan out into office drama later, but it didn't.


4. We're told, more than we're shown, that she has a close relationship with her grandfather. We occasionally see her calling him on the phone, but we don't get a sense of how they are together, what they mean to each other. This becomes important later, when she has to face his cancer and death, and wants us to understand her reaction to it.


Overall, while it was easy listening, I do agree somewhat with a reader on goodreads who suggested that Ms. Williams might have had good blog material here, but she didn't know exactly what she was trying to say with her story, and she's perhaps too much of an average writer to attempt to turn this into a book.