Cherie Dimaline’s 2023 Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a stand-alone modern fantasy.
Sixteen-year-old Winifred “Win” Blight lives with her taciturn father in the Winterson Cemetery1, where her father operates the crematorium. While living in a house2 on cemetery grounds has its drawbacks — fellow students (the jerks) call Win “Wednesday Addams3” — Win has lived there her whole life and it’s all she knows. News that declining business may force the crematorium to shut down is unwelcome news, as the Blight home is a free perk of graveyard employment.
Win has one card to play: the cemetery ghost.
There is no ghost. There is just Win and the gullibility of cemetery visitors who add “unfamiliar girl dressed oddly” + “in a graveyard” to arrive at “ghost!” While Win did not create the rumor of the ghost on purpose, she sees the utility of the urban legend. If she can pull a reverse Scooby-doo4, fans of the occult and supernatural might provide the cemetery with an alternate income stream.
Win knows nothing about carrying off deliberate occult scams. Her unlikable cousin Penny, on the other hand, has considerable experience. She parlays white people’s curious beliefs about First Nations paranormal abilities into a steady income. But Penny loathes Win; she won’t help unless she is paid.
That’s just one of several stressors. Win is also dealing with puberty and her burgeoning desire to turn her best friend Jack into something more. This project faces several challenges. Neither teen is notably articulate. Jack is a teenaged boy. Even if the pair do not derail any romance due to bumbling conversational skills, it’s quite likely that Jack will do something stupid and unforgivable.
And the capper: there really is a cemetery ghost, the shade of a murdered girl named Phil. Once Win becomes aware of Phil, the two swiftly become friends and more.
Too bad for the pair that Penny’s absurd occult rituals are functional enough to discomfort Phil. What, if anything, Win can do about the crisis she herself helped cause is unclear.
Aside from being set in a cemetery and featuring a post-mortem love affair, this novel is not much like Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place. That said, I am confident that the people who liked A Fine and Private Place will also like this.
A question I had not thought to ask is “do social media amplify the tendency of young idiots to sabotage relationships and lives?” The events of the novel suggest that the answer is yes, which given Jack’s existing tendency to kneecap himself is … really saying something5. Helpful advice: if you are a teenager and you’ve ever said something stupid, or you think you might, avoid social media.
Songs is not Can-Lit, but Songs is close enough to Can-Lit to hit it with a thrown stone. This is a novel about death, grief, and how people manage. Phil was murdered. Win’s mother died in childbirth. Penny’s mother died and left her precious ring to Win. The question is not just “will a supporting character die in order to cast light on the themes of the novel?” but “which adorable character or characters will that be?” On an unrelated note, I would not be surprised if Songs won a Newbery6.
Song is as unputdownable as the author’s previous The Marrow Thieves. Despite many deaths and broken relationships, the novel is considerably less bleak than is The Marrow Thieves. Perhaps a bittersweet coming-of-age novel is bound to be more upbeat than a book about a hellish dystopia.
Even before I read this book, I was certain to keep reading Dimaline novels. Songs further cemented my resolve to do so.
1: To make this perfectly clear: the Blights live in a regular house on the cemetery grounds. Mr. Blight’s boss does not force the Blights to live in a crypt or grave.
3: I am not explaining this reference.
4: 3, ditto.
5: Don’t worry about Jack. Jack has an excellent jawline. Jack will not die alone.
6: If Songs were to win a Newberry, it could easily become assigned reading for high school students. This would be good for the author in terms of income and prominence. But having to analyze the novel might not be fun for the students.