Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined.

What if Death wasn’t the male Grim Reaper stereotype? What if, instead, she was a poor black woman – a bag lady on a bus, or a hospital cleaner? In this playful and lilting story, we learn of Mrs Death’s work via her unwitting medium, Wolf Willeford, who one Christmas Eve goes walking in London’s Brick Lane area and buys an irresistible desk that reveals flashes of historical deaths. Once Mrs Death’s desk (and resentful at not being a piano), it now transmits her stories to Wolf, giving a whole new meaning to the term ghost writer. Wolf compiles and edits her memoirs, which take the form of diary entries, poems, and songs.

It’s never been more stressful to be Death, what with civil war in Syria, school shootings in the USA, and refugees drowning off the coast of France. But although the book’s frame of reference is up to the minute, wrongful deaths are nothing new, so occasional vignettes dramatize untimely demises – especially of black women – across the centuries: from the days of slavery to Jack the Ripper to police custody a few years ago. There are so many ways to die:

really nearly took that other plane on 9/11

had a coconut fall on your head

saw your village being bombed

slipped taking a selfie by the Grand Canyon

had a fight with an alligator

got stranded in a fierce and fast-moving bushfire

Speaking of fire, and of the title, Wolf (biracial, nonbinary, and possibly bipolar) is here to narrate only because Mrs Death missed one. Their mum died in a house fire. Wolf should have died that day, too, but heard a voice saying “Wake up, Wolf … Can you smell smoke?” Were they spared deliberately, or did Mrs Death make a mistake? (After all, we learn that when a patient briefly wakes up on the operating table before dying for good, it’s because Mrs Death’s printer got jammed.)

Where I think the novel really succeeds is in balancing its two levels: the cosmic, in which Life and Death are sisters and Time is Death’s lover in a sort of creation myth; and the personal, in which Wolf’s family tree, printed at the end, is an appalling litany of accidental deaths and executions. It’s easy to see why Wolf is so traumatized, but Mrs Death, ironically, reminds him that, despite all of the world’s fallen heroes and ongoing crises, there is still such beauty to be found in life.

All the warmth and all the joy is boiled in a soup of memory, we stir the good stuff from the bottom of the pot and hold the ladle up, drink, we say, look at all the good chunks of goodness, take in your share of good times, good music, good books, good food, good laughter, good people, be grateful for the good stuff, life and death, we say, drink.

There were a few spots where I thought the content repetitive and wondered if the miscellany format distracted from the narrative, but overall the book more than lives up to its fantastic cover, title, and premise. And with the pandemic’s global death toll rising daily, it could hardly be more relevant.

Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read: this is the first entry on my Best of 2021 shelf.


With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

Tomorrow I’ll review a few more of January’s fiction releases, followed by nonfiction on Saturday.

29 responses

  1. Is this all prose-poetry? I love the premise but I do struggle with that form.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s maybe half and half, with a long section of poems at the end. No more challenging to read than GWO.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. OK, that sounds better (I wouldn’t think of GWO as prose-poetry, and I have nothing against poetry itself!)

        Like

    2. Evaristo calls her approach “fusion fiction” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow! I’d love to read this book. I was wondering if there were any parallels with the Claire North book, but obvs the styles are totally different and this sounds amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It felt like performance poetry in places, somewhere between Jay Bernard and Bernardine Evaristo.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Sold! — to the lady with too many books already 😉 I guess I should do affiliate links after all.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You could earn loads! I used a Shiny link to save an extra £1!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yessss this is so good! I thought Wolf’s nonbinary-ness was particularly well handled.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was so subtly done that I barely noticed until page 200-something.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] more works of fiction that were released this month, as a supplement to yesterday’s review of Mrs Death Misses Death. Although the four are hugely different in setting and style, and I liked some better than others […]

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  5. I read this last week and really enjoyed it too, although I felt at times that some of the issues raised seemed a bit shoe-horned in, and I could take or leave the poetry, but overall it was quite wonderful! Plus I live about 10 miles from the Tower in Cushendall so it was a nice surprise to see it in fiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How neat! I assumed it was a real place but didn’t know anything about it.

      Like

      1. Bill Drummond of the KLF bought it a while back and it hosts artist residencies just as described in the book. I was in it years ago but I imagine it’s changed a lot now.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Right. It’s ordered from our library. Not in stock yet, but I’m first in the queue!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I seem to remember magic realism is a turn-off for you … I hope you enjoy it all the same! It’s a unique book.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your review convinced me it was worth trying to overcome my prejudices. What is Lockdown if not to try us?

        Liked by 1 person

  7. […] can read two great in-depth reviews of Mrs Death Misses Death over at Rebecca and Susan‘s […]

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  8. This sounds fantastic… Putting it on my list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know of a North American publisher yet, but I hope one won’t be long in coming. There’s been big news of a planned screen adaptation by Idris Elba, so surely publishers will snap it up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have lots to keep me busy in the meantime. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This sounds delightful! What a creative premise. The desk that wishes to be a piano is a fantastic detail too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did love that detail of the wood expressing a preference for what it is turned into!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hahaha: I love your marketing pair-up for this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Where’s my top-level marketing job offer? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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