About halfway through Kate Mayfield’s beautiful memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter I asked myself: have I ever read a memoir before? I’ve read autobiographies, of course, and although there’s no ISO definition to delineate memoir from autobiography it would surely have to distinguish between the celebrity that makes us want to buy an autobiography from the voice that makes us want to read a memoir. Reading this lovely book, I came to the conclusion that I have read memoirs, only they’ve been fictional ones. To Kill a Mockingbird is a memoir. So is Catch 22. So are several of Dickens’s novels. It’s just that, to a greater or lesser extent, their stories are made-up ones.
And it helped, in many ways, to think of The Undertaker’s Daughter as a novel, because for this experience of a genuine memoir I was in the decidedly odd position of knowing the author. I met Kate on a trip to Hogarth’s House in Chiswick some years ago, and she is (I hope she won’t mind me saying) a very striking person to meet, particularly in that odd little residence by the side of the A4. She is always exquisitely turned out, she is always smiling, and she speaks with a soft Southern accent as warm as hot chocolate. And she has always been generous and kind to me. So take what I am about to say here as you will, but it is honestly meant.
Kate Mayfield grew up in a funeral home in Jubilee, Kentucky, and The Undertaker’s Daughter tells the tale of that growing up. It also, in its way, tells the tale of America’s civil rights movement, but those words are never used, because it is the experience of a white child becoming a white woman in a still-segregated community that is the tale here. Kate’s father, the undertaker, was a complicated man and also a fantastically hard-working and focussed one, and his alignment with one of the grandes dames of Kentucky is one of the narratives that drives the book along. The stories are full of hairdressing and gowns and big cars and card games and gossip, and like a very good period novel, The Undertaker’s Daughter drops us into 1960s Kentucky until we can smell the gardenias in the air and feel the hairspray on our faces.
But that isn’t what makes this book exceptional. What makes it exceptional are its secrets, which unfurl with terrible deliberation – Kate’s secrets, her father’s secrets, the secrets of any family but particularly a family such as this, one with access to the darkest moments in people’s lives, and one which lives in such an oddly heightened position in the community. This is where my experience of the book may differ from yours because, as I said, I know Kate. So some of the revelations in this book hit me in a different way to how they would hit a stranger. I found myself admiring Kate’s bravery and her insistence on being truthful.
And more than anything, I admired the writing, which is exquisite. The pacing of the book (those unfolding secrets, again), but also the poetry of the words. And in between each chapter, Kate has inserted a little story, collectively called In Memoriam, of a single death in Kentucky. Over the course of the book, the dead and the ones they left behind fill the pages, until Kentucky is paradoxically alive with these people and their stories. I still feel, weeks after finishing the book by the banks of the Loire, that I could step out of my front door and out onto the streets of Kentucky, and watch Frank Mayfield drive past in his Henney-Packard ambulance, old lady Miss Agnes sitting in the seat beside him dressed entirely in red, and everyone looking up as they go by.