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Open Me

Open Me

3.3 15
by Sunshine O'Donnell

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A debut novel about a young girl at the center of the secret world of professional mourners, where women are trained extensively and paid handsomely to attend the funerals of strangers. Mem is a wailer, a professional mourner hired to cry at funerals. One of the few remaining American girls in this secret, illegal profession, Mem hails from a long line of mourners,


A debut novel about a young girl at the center of the secret world of professional mourners, where women are trained extensively and paid handsomely to attend the funerals of strangers. Mem is a wailer, a professional mourner hired to cry at funerals. One of the few remaining American girls in this secret, illegal profession, Mem hails from a long line of mourners, including her mother, a legendary master wailer hired for the most important funerals in her hometown of Philadelphia. Though Mem is to eventually become a renowned wailer herself, she at first struggles with her calling. She is a girl who cannot make herself cry, and though her mother loves her fiercely, she must use ancient, emotionally abusive, cult-like rituals to train Mem to weep. When Mem emerges as the greatest wailer that the profession has ever seen, her infamy brings with it unwanted attention, especially from the authorities. Interweaving poetic prose and artifacts spanning six thousand years and seven continents, 'Open Me' is an utterly original novel about mothers and daughters, dark underworlds, and the play between fact and fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A trudging fascination with ancient rites hampers this disappointing debut novel about Mem, a professional girl mourner in contemporary Philadelphia paid top dollar to wail at local funerals. The women in Mem's family have been grieving for money since ancient Roman times, passing down to their daughters the art of crying on command. Though the profession is illegal, Mem's family persists with cultish zeal, with mothers training their children to cry by verbally assaulting them and threatening to abandon them. Mem distinguishes herself as a stunning wailer, and as her bookings increase, so does the level of interest from law enforcement. The necessity of the harsh training Mem receives is never questioned, nor is the demand for professional mourners in modern society made plausible. Though O'Donnell's prose is deft and accomplished, it suffers in service of an improbable premise that's short on plot and long on overstated themes of ritual, motherhood and feminine sexuality. Unfortunately, O'Donnell neither demystifies the past nor illuminates the peculiar present she's created. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Poet, essayist, and educator O'Donnell's first novel dives into the fantastically interesting world of professional mourners. The book centers on a young girl named Mem, a crying-savant revered for her ability to wail during funerals. O'Donnell interrogates this 6000-year-old pay-for-tears tradition, along the way crafting historical "proof"-poems, letters, legal documents-of the secret, all-female community that perpetuates this illegal trade. Unfortunately, the text is a tease, failing to satisfy our deepest curiosity about the Wailers' invented culture. For example, Mem's conversations with her mother are peppered with Yiddish words. But are the Wailers descended from Jews? Or are they progeny of the Marranos, Jews forced by 15th-century Spain and Portugal to convert to Christianity? Or neither? While O'Donnell writes that the hidden nature of the community makes full understanding impossible, this leaves readers in a quandary, intrigued but ultimately annoyed, that Mem and her people are so unknowable. Recommended for large collections only.
—Eleanor J. Bader

Product Details

MacAdam/Cage Publishing, Incorporated
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Read an Excerpt

“Do you know what you look like when you’re crying?”

The little girl and the old man who had paid for her are standing beneath the deep-green grave canopy when he asks her this. They are standing on opposite sides of the casket, waiting for its slow drop to end so that the little girl can begin. While they wait, the little girl picks at the edges of her handkerchief and watches the sleek brown coffin that is dropping, the shrinking open gap between the casket and the hole, while her mother stands behind the real mourners, counting the money and turning away.

“Come a bit closer for me,” says the old man, gently. “A bit closer to the grave.”

Is the young minister still talking? The little girl can’t tell, can’t hear much but the sound of her stiff black lace rustling against itself, the rain, the sound of her heart in her ears. She tries to be sad but she doesn’t feel sad now. What she feels inside is the ghost-self growing, curled at the edges, gray and unstable as burnt paper. A scorched wisp.

She moves closer to the grave. I am stupid, she remembers. I am worthless, I am disgusting. The grass by her feet is fake and bright green, fringed with frail shards of gnarled brown leaves. “Don’t be scared,” the old man says, and with some difficulty, he walks closer to where she is and stands behind her, clamping his hands down onto the shoulders of her dress. His fingers shake as he leans forward, whispering into the little girl’s hair.

What does he whisper? At first she can’t tell, the rain is beating its glass fists against the tent. She closes her eyes and pretends she’s under her secret salt tree with leaves like thin tongues of glass. The old man’s fingers press and squeeze. She keeps trying but the tears won’t come, she only sees white, white on white, something she can barely see the shape of, like a reflection caught in a puddle of milk. She doesn’t want to leave the salt tree but it is too late, the man’s whispers reach her even there, his not-white sounds, his wordless noises navigating toward her through the salt wasps and dry flowers.

What does he whisper? Unbearable. A hot breath, damp and loose. Unbearable. A wet smoke.

If you don’t cry for me, I will turn your mother in.

She opens her eyes and looks at her hands and sees the color gray. The little girl feels his fingers squeeze, his breath get thick, his dank gray whisper. The ghost inside her is whisper thin. The old man doesn’t know her name. He whispers, gently, into her hair, Start crying.

Meet the Author

About the Author: An award-winning poet, essayist and educator, Sunshine O’Donnell teaches experiential workshops in creative writing, visual art, and quantum physics to undeserved children in poverty-stricken schools and youth residential facilities throughout Pennsylvania. Through 'The Coffeehouse Project', a mobile-classroom program O’Donnell founded in 1994, she has published hundreds of literary magazines for undeserved adolescents and abused and abandoned children. O’Donnell lives in the German-town section of Philadelphia with her husband. 'Open Me' is her first novel.

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Open Me 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mem 'her secret name' is the last of a dying breed of women who are called 'Wailers': professional mourners. The profession, like prostitution, is illegal in these modern times, yet exists on the fringes of respectability, earning huge incomes for its 'master' practitioners. Mem is a master--a star. And as the last of her kind, she has the responsibility of choice--to keep the profession alive, or abandon it and quit living in the shadows. Unfortunately, Mem cannot stop living in the dark places that created her. She is bound to them by something stronger--her relationship with her mother. The profession of wailing is illegal because when young girls are born into it they are trained from birth by mental abuse, exposure to death and dying, and being hidden from society. They dress in the special garb of wailers--the doole--and are taught how to cry on demand. Through these methods is fostered an acceptance of their own uniqueness and a history that goes back to pre-Christian times, but the training takes its toll on the young girl's psyche, changing it forever, breaking and scarring her soul. Mem takes to her profession as if it were in her genetic code, but she also struggles--though she learns well the lessons it takes to become a wailer, she manages to also find her own voice in the society, and this small innovation, this tiny little rebellion--doing it her way instead of the way it is taught--sows the seeds of its destruction and her stardom together. While this book is about the fictitious profession it details, it is also about something else: the bonds and the relationship forged between a mother and a daughter, and what happens to that relationship when it is abused, twisted, perverted. Mem and her mother will crash and burn, but they will also find the love that lives in spite of the training that is designed to destroy it. This is a feminine version of the story of Icarus and Daedelus--told from a wholly female point of view. Sunshine O'Donnell can write an entire page of emotion in one or two sentences. She gets under the skins of Mem, her mother, the profession they inhabit and the masks they hide behind she lays them out on the autopsy table and guts them without mercy, but manages to preserve their humanity and the beauty that hides beneath the skin. There is insight and wisdom in her unique point of view, and a poetry in the tale you will not soon forget. It draws few conclusions, but that is not detrimental to its message. Any mother and any daughter can find something in this novel to take back with them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I saw this book at my local Barnes and Noble store as one of the new authors, and I read about the author in Poets and Writers magazine. After reading the historical note in the beginning, I was hooked. Once I began reading, I could not put the book down. Ms. O'Donnell explores the world of professional mourners through her protagonist, Mem, and other characters. Readers can follow Mem from her early training to be a professional mourner through her rise to stardom. I laughed and cried and wanted to hold the little child. More than the story of Mem, though, was Ms. O'Donnell's ability to make me think of relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters, friends, and family. I also found myself contemplating death and what it means to different people. To the professional mourners, funerals were work, a means to make money, but for the 'unprofessionals,' funerals meant something entirely different. She explores the words used for dead people, from the words spoken at a funeral to those used by children, which seemed to be preferred to Mem. In between the chapters, which are titled with questions, Ms. O'Donnell has included poetry, prose, and documents which help readers to understand. Ms. O'Donnell's background in poetry is evident, too, in her use of imagery throughout the book. In addition to the beautiful imagery, and the interesting way I will now look at everyday items, like oscillating fans, there was a rhythm to her writing which guides the reader throughout the book. I will keep this book on one of my many bookshelves, and I will read it again and again, and I imagine that I will need a new copy down the road. I plan to donate a copy to my library, and I will purchase copies for my friends. This is a debut novel by a gifted writer, and I look forward to reading more by her. Open Me is original, fresh, eloquent, and filled with interesting characters.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I knew Sunshine personally, and I am so proud to say that I read this book a long time ago when she first wrote it. I could not put it down. The story was moving and the author is wonderfully creative. I cannot wait to purchase the published copy. It brings joy to my heart knowing that Sunshine is still writing. She was born to write. I am certain that Sunshine will continue to bring mystery and joy to everyone who reads her works. I had the pleasure to call her my sister once
Guest More than 1 year ago
This debut novel is fantastic and has elements of a great first novel: Original plot and great characters. This book is utterly and refreshingly original and causes the reader to ponder what death - and life - really mean. The book is written beautifully with poetic imagry. The book is written so well, that I felt for the main character, Mem, and wanted to comfort her and get her out of this world. I cannot wait to see what Ms. O'Donnell comes up with next!
Evelyn_Reuss More than 1 year ago
I could tell while reading this book that the author was a poet without even doing any research into her life. A mediocre plot and completely indifferent characters serve as a motive for frustration which is only magnified by the whimsical and often pretentious overkill of symbolism and metaphors in the writing itself. I could see how in small doses of poetry the writing would be impressive but an entire book of the exhausted efforts of the author to show her writing strengths was very strenuous to endure and to top it all off you are met with a predictable and meaningless ending.