The eponymous narrator of The Funeral Cryer muses on the way names constrain and mislead. They are used as signifiers of family and marital status, but her corner of the world is littered with villages named for rivers and mountains that don’t exist. Her daughter, struggling to make a life in Shanghai, adopts an English name at work. Instead, she identifies people either by their relationship to her, (“the husband”, “the daughter”) by their occupation (“the barber”) or by some other nickname (“Hotpot”).
The role of a funeral cryer is to move the mourners at a funeral to grief through speech and by crying herself, before offering up joyful singing as they make for the refreshments. The narrator, a woman in her fifties living in the village she grew up in, has drifted into this role, having tried to make a life in a city and then married a wastrel husband.
Being a funeral cryer is stigmatising and she is shunned by traditionalists in her village. But it also has its rewards – it is relatively well paid and the bereaved often confide in her.
She is at a crossroads, her marriage and her work are less than she dreamed of, and her daughter wants her to take responsibility for her (as yet unborn) grandchild and raise it in the village. She also has elderly parents.
Her one luxury is having her hair done by the local barber (most people she knows cut their own). He is an incomer to the village and, when she begins to suspect her husband of being too interested in the Hotpot (to British ears an unlikely nickname for a sex siren), it is her conversations with the barber that offer consolation.
At first I thought The Funeral Cryer was going to follow the depressingly familiar path of the abusive marriage – her husband seemed almost a caricature. However, the story of this marriage turns out to be more complicated – and more entertaining – than it first appears.
The Funeral Cryer is a fascinating read. The narrator appears to tell you everything, all the details of daily life in the village (I particularly enjoyed hearing what she cooked) but she remains somehow mysterious. She is detached, if not alienated from the people around her. (Interestingly it is her daughter who she seems to resent the most.)
She could be viewed as cold, or lonely and isolated, depending on your perspective. But there is a vein of dry humour running through her observations and even her battles with her husband.
The metaphor of the funeral cryer is a brilliant one. She helps people manifest grief when they are either repressed from showing it – or aren’t really feeling it at all. Often the bereaved themselves aren’t sure which is the case.
The end is odd and surprising. I’m still thinking about it now, not sure what to make of it – but that, to me, is a strength.
I received a copy of The Funeral Cryer from the publisher via NetGalley.
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