Thursday, 30 September 2010

Down Among The Dead Men - Dead Pan?

Very recently, I have started reading (or listening to) books for which a review from a reputable place sounds interesting, or at least intriguing. Unfortunately, I can't find the review that made me read Down Among The Dead Men, by Michelle Williams - and I'd dearly love to read it again. The review, that is - not necessarily the book itself.

Why? Well, the review was obviously positive enough for me to part with almost £5 to get a Kindle edition, and then spend a few hours actually reading it. Unfortunately, I don't think I really got my £5 worth (OK, it was £4.40 - same difference).

Not that the book is a total waste of time. It is even mostly interesting. It definitely is a revelation to read a rather dry (almost) live commentary of daily goings on in a British mortuary. It is also definitely a book you may not want to read over a meal - or even shortly afterwards. In fact, reading it even before one might be a bad idea - unless you're struggling to keep your diet. And then, if you're prone to nightmares you may want to read something else at bedtime...

Oh, all of the above were in fact book's virtues! Quite apart from the fact that I suffer none of the problems listed (and have happily devoured both the book and a pizza at the same time) I find that a subject like this does need all the bells and whistles removed in order to really portray the gory, but necessary, and noble work of morticians.

The problem here is in the writing style. While it is refreshing to have a first hand account of a job from the practitioner themselves, in this particular case a touch of ghost-writing could have helped - a lot. Yes, it's charming to hear (and you can almost literally hear it) a simple country girl's voice telling you about stuff you don't necessarily associate with a girl's job, but it is too often a bit dead pan, and uninspiring.

Also, there's little to take away from the book apart from a few portraits of reasonably (but not excitingly) interesting people, and of course the gory details we may think we are aware of, but never quite are. To top it all, all this feels thrown towards the reader without much order or plan. Again, very much like a girl's diary, or even something she'd have told you over a glass of wine (or ale, or even lager, more likely) had you made her acquaintance in your (or hers) local.

All charming and entertaining stuff, yes, but one tends to expect a bit more structure and point in what is sold as a literary form. Possibly, the impression would have been better if this came out as a series of magazine articles, then put together into a book - but clearly labelled as potted journalism. Oh, and amateur journalism at that.

Let me make it clear amateur journalism, or even writing is certainly no bad thing. After all, for what it's worth, even I dabble. What I'm talking about here is honest labelling. If we can insist on labelling "proper" food properly, maybe we should also have rules to govern labelling food for thought?

So, in summary, should this book go down into history, or down the pan? Well, neither, really.

It's interesting, if not exactly gripping, read. It also doesn't quite live up to expectations. It certainly isn't a "read it more than once" stuff. I guess the best verdict I can offer is: read, then pass on - preferably to an unsuspecting, maybe a little squeamish passer-by.