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My Life with Corpses    by Wylene Dunbar order for
My Life with Corpses
by Wylene Dunbar
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2004 (2004)

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* *   Reviewed by David Pitt

This is either a terrific novel, or a terrifically confused one. I'm not sure.

As a young girl, on a farm in Kansas, Oz lived with a family of corpses. Her mother was dead, her father was dead, her sister was dead. They weren't immobile, they weren't rotting carcasses, they weren't zombies, they were just ... not alive.

As you can imagine, this made Oz's parents a little odd. Her mother, for example, would give Oz an enema at the slightest hint her daughter was unwell. She did this, Oz tells us, 'to free me from the existence and occasional bad humor of a physical body that, not dead like hers, was in continual motion. I do not blame her for this. My aliveness was upsetting in a family of the dead, and its effects had to be kept to a minimum.'

Later, Oz is 'rescued' from her dead family by a neighbour, and the bulk of the novel deals with her coming to terms with being a woman predisposed toward death trying to make it in the world of the living.

Now, right here you're thinking that this is either a very weird fantasy, in which a girl imagines her family is living corpses (or the animated unliving, take your pick), or it's a perfectly normal coming-of-age story with one simple, although off-the-wall, premise.

I really can't tell you which it is. It's very well written, I can tell you that much, and Oz's life-long struggle to avoid the living corpsedom that afflicted her family is strangely believable, presented so matter-of-factly that we really don't feel the need to question whether we're supposed to take it at face value.

But you can't deny the fantasy elements are there. There are obvious ones a little girl named Oz, living on a farm in Kansas and less obvious ones, like the moment, after Oz's 'rescue' by Mr. Stark, when the sheriff visits the house, and Oz's family is now quite obviously dead, and the sheriff says, 'How long have they been like this?' (Has Oz been sharing her house with a bunch of rotting corpses after all? Has this dead-but-still-behaving-as-though-they're-alive stuff all been the imaginings of a very disturbed little girl? Your guess is as good as mine.)

Ultimately, My Life with Corpses is an entirely unique novel, one that defies being put in a niche, or perhaps creates its own niche. Maybe it's a fantasy; maybe it's not. Maybe it's an allegory for the human condition, and the way we all of us, from time to time, feel our lives slipping away from us. Or maybe not.

Tell you what: you read it, then let me know what you think.

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