Book review: Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden.

I am starting this review with a confession. And perhaps an apology. I read this glorious and beautifully complex book quite a while ago. I have been meaning to review it ever since.

It has sat on my bedside table and I have looked at it every single day, most days I have picked up and turned the pages. Each time it’s brilliance has hit me again and again, each time I am remind of the skill and originality of the author. And each time I wonder how on earth I am going to find the words to do this one justice!

This week on 28th January Mrs Death Misses Death is published by Canongate and the time has come to get my review written and try and express how incredible it really is.

The premise of this book is in essence simple. Death is tired, battle weary and looking for rest. Death wants someone to listen to and tell their story. But Death is not who we might think they are. Death is not the skeletal, white male figure hanging around corners in a black hooded cloak. Death is a woman, a old black woman.

Let that sink in. One of the most underrepresented, under estimated and discriminated against personas in history is responsible for ushering life out of this world. She possesses the ultimate power.

And when we add in the fact that Mrs Death has a sister; a sister who holds the responsibility for birth and life, who takes control of the beginnings in the way her sister controls the endings, the sense of power grows, is all encompassing and overwhelming. These are two sisters in the ultimate symbiotic relationship, one bringing life into the world , one taking it away; making room for the next generation. And they are black. And they are female. And they are old.

After years of carrying this responsibility Mrs Death needs a confidante, someone who she can unburden her own grief to. But who is equal to this unimaginable task? Who can take on the confessions, doubts and torments accumulated by years of ending lives?

Chosen by Death herself is Wolf, at first glance an unlikely candidate. Wolf is a writer, struggling and troubled who has danced with Death before in a number of ways. But now the connection is cemented and as Wolf clings to life and sometimes sanity by the slimmest of margins, with Death’s own desk as the platform for their work, the two troubled souls begin a journey through the past, present and future.

Through a work of complexity and richness, where we dance through a huge showcase of techniques and devices, each perfectly chosen, a whole range of subjects are explored.

Here death itself is laid bare. Mrs Death is complex. She possesses compassion and humanity, alongside a finality and ruthlessness The text forces us into a simple confrontation of death. It forces us to consider how we reassess a life when death occurs, to understand the process of grief and the pain that accompanies it.

And yet this work is more about more than Death. This is about life in all it’s glorious and terrible forms. This is a novel that challenges you to consider the wider human condition. To philosophise on the subjects of sex, gender, race. To look back in time at events we think we understand and see them with fresh eyes, to take a different perspective and challenge ourselves. To consider the endless cycle of life and death, of greed and consumption, of love and hate, of mental well-being and mental illness. To consider just how far we have come and have far we still have to go in all kinds of ways; in compassion, in kindness and in equality. As Wolf grapples with the huge questions and concepts that soar around and above us, that defy explanation and definition, we, as readers, grapple with them too.

This book is the personification of writing as therapy. Through our potentially unreliable narrators we are taken on a complex, compelling and sometimes shifting journey. Filled with equal shares of humour and pathos this is a novel to be absorbed. A single reading will be delightful but not enough. This is a text for life, to be enjoyed but to be studied. To be embraced and then discussed. And never to be forgotten.

Rachel x

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