Book Review - Nine Years Under

Author Sheri Booker digs deep in her memoir about coming of age in a funeral home

Author Sheri Booker learned about loss early. When she was still a teen, she watched hospice workers move in and out of her family's Baltimore home to care for her Aunt Mary who was dying from cancer. In the final days, the young girl watched helplessly as her beloved friend and confidante withered away. When the woman finally died, the girl left behind was devastated. She writes, "After Aunt Mary died, the ground beneath me shifted. I expected the world to pause for my grief — and it didn't, not even for a moment of silence."

Still reeling from the loss, she turned a corner, quite literally in a church corridor one Sunday, and ran smack into local funeral director Al Wylie. He was a prominent and charismatic member of the congregation. He had a penchant for suave suits, shiny cars, and pretty ladies, and his walk was one of "undiluted confidence." It was in his funeral parlor just days before that her parents had let her make most of the important decisions about her aunt's funeral, from choosing the photo for the program to picking the grand pink-and-white casket with custom-made angels. Catching her off guard, he asked what she was doing for the summer. "Working for you," was her impulsive and joking reply. But he was serious. After getting her parents' approval, the next day she was working at the Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home. She was just 15 at the time. She remained in his employ for the next nine years.

In Nine Years Under, Booker takes readers on her hearse-lined joy ride, holding back tears for the most part (tears are not allowed when you work for Mr. Wylie). We follow her from her fumbling first days in the office answering the phones, figuring out the filing system and forms (no blue-ink pens!), and following the fashionable strut of the sassy office manager, Ms. Angela. We watch her awkward interactions with fragile family members, angry lovers, and threatening gang members in the viewing rooms. We go down the basement steps with her for the first time as she encounters a naked adult corpse and, later, join her as she delicately puts a gown on a newborn baby corpse in the dressing room. We share her shame at getting into a fender bender at the McDonald's drive-thru with a corpse in tow. And we fall with her as she tumbles after a romance with the boss's son. Finally, we unravel with her as she comes undone from years of pent-up emotion and pressure from being under Wylie's well-manicured thumb.

The rough streets, violence, and tough environs around the funeral home contrast the tidier and safer environs of her home across town — a home her parents, a policeman and a school principal, worked long hours to maintain and provide for their honor-roll daughter and her sister.

The author's longing to break away from her "good girl" image and immerse herself in her new otherworldly world makes for a motivated employee and a great journalist. Her knack for detail, character descriptions, dialogue, and exposé of personal indiscretions make for a gritty, moving, and often funny read. It's not a perfect narrative (the weight of too many similes can feel like a 600-pound man in a cardboard coffin) but her insider's story manages to uplift and turn a glimpse of the dark side into a bright reveal of humanity.

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home by Sheri Booker. Gotham Books. $26. 261 pp.

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