In Dead Women Talking, Brian Norman focuses on the “evolution of dead women talking into a full-fledged American literary tradition by the later twentieth century” (20). Norman investigates how the talking dead woman can claim the status of citizen, albeit dead, and to what extend her peculiar speech act occurs at moments “when [women characters’] experiences of death can address an issue of injustice that their communities might prematurely consign to the past” (1). To this end, Norman examines eleven works of American literature frequently taught in college courses: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, selected stories from Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Ana Castillo’s So Far from God, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Suzan-Lori Parks’s Getting Mother’s Body, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman.” Following an introduction that traces initial manifestations of the tradition of the talking dead woman to authors such as Emily Dickinson, he dedicates one chapter to each work, discussing Kingston’s work in the chapter that serves as conclusion.
The book’s breadth of works surveyed invites readers to consider the trope of the talking dead woman across a variety of literary periods and genres. Norman succeeds in establishing his argument that the figure of the talking dead woman has been employed consistently to address social concerns of the respective time periods when the works were published. Thus, for example, he examines Walker’s use of Zora Neale Hurston during a period of reclaiming African American culture and literature or Castillo’s portrayal of the detrimental impact of greed on both contemporary society and the environment. Norman concedes that the works he examines meet his criteria of linking dead women’s speech to the pursuit of social justice to varying degrees.
Particularly engaging is Norman’s choice of Faulkner’s work compared to its rewriting, Parks’s novel. In his comparative analysis of both works in the Parks chapter, Norman illustrates how Parks reimagines the literary tradition of the talking dead woman as a revision of Faulkner’s modernist aesthetic. This comparison is perhaps Norman’s strongest illustration of the existence of a coherent literary tradition that consciously employs the figure of the talking dead woman.
About his critical and theoretical approach to the topic Norman admits that his “method throughout the book is primarily text [End Page 568] driven” and that the discussion’s “apparatus varies by chapter,” but he points out that “the argument remains consistent: these dead women seek posthumous citizenship” (17). While many readers will welcome the literary discussion’s focus on a larger number of works, some might also wish for a more defined, overarching thesis grounded in a theoretical apparatus that applies to all of the readings (for example, through a more sustained engagement with feminist criticism or theories of trauma, grief, and mourning). Many scholars will no doubt find useful points of departure in Norman’s work for their own research, and the book functions as an invitation and a road map for those who wish to embark on their own exploration of the topic in literary criticism.
In his exploration of dead women characters, Norman carefully distinguishes the object of his study from the related figure of the ghost. As he clarifies, venturing beyond the role of the haunting figure, talking dead women “seek a place within their communities and often the legal apparatus itself” (8) while rejecting “familiar tropes of gothic, horror, and mythic modes” (9). Ultimately, Norman’s discussion suggests that the talking dead woman advances a transgressive political agenda, while the ghost as a presence may seem more enigmatic and incidental, allowing haunted communities to essentially dismiss the phenomenon rather than engage it. For example, he sums up Beloved’s problematic position in her community as follows: “there may be...