Thursday, 4 February 2021

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

How do you even begin to talk about a book like Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death? It is a book that defies description, let alone comparison.

It is, at its core, an uplifting meditation on the nature of death. Structured more like a mind-map than a novel, it branches out in multiple directions, using poetry and prose, narrative, monologues and conversations.

At the heart of the story are Wolf, and Mrs Death. One Christmas Eve, Wolf uses the rent money to buy an antique desk with a dusty red leather top. But the desk used to belong to Mrs Death. And sitting at her desk, Wolf begins to hear her stories.

Mrs Death is fed up of the way the world has imagined Death as a man. “For surely only she who bears it, she who gave you life, can be she who has the power to take it. […] And only she who is invisible, ore readily talked over, ignored, betrayed or easily walked past then a woman: a poor old black woman, a homeless black beggar-woman with knotty, natty hair, broken back, walking ever so slowly…”

And she tells her stories to Wolf. Wolf who met her once before, the night a fire swept through their block of flats. The night Wolf's mother died and Wolf didn’t.

As well as listening in on the conversations between Wolf and Mrs Death, we find ourselves in the slums of Victorian England, in 15th Century Spain and 18th C Edinburgh, in Holloway Prison and the Australian Outback. As Wolf says, “This work has a very high dead and death count.”

The book captures the sense of existential crisis so many of us felt, even before Covid-19 took over our lives. “What is wrong with everyone?” Wolf rails. “I am not catastrophising. This is a f*** catastrophe. […] Maybe I’m crying because you aren’t crying with me right now, because you just aren’t mad enough.”

But the book is also incredibly life affirming. Because if life is short and death is inevitable, then is up to us to live it in the best way be can. As Mrs Death exhorts us, “you all need to be heroes, to step up, to speak up, to support each other.”

It is extraordinary, in hindsight, that this book, which must have been completed before the end of 2019, should come to be published just when the whole world has been forced to come to terms with the nearness of death. But though the victims of Covid-19 play no role in the text, Godden has found a way to remember “all we are losing and have lost to the corona virus pandemic [as well as] the murdered, the disappeared, the stolen and the erased. The fallen and the pushed.” The last six pages of the book are left blank, and in her final section, Godden invites her readers to “add your loved one’s name on one of these blank pages, maybe add a date, a memory or a prayer. In this one act of remembrance, we will be united. From now on every single person who reads this book will know their copy contains their own dead. As time passes, if this book is borrowed or passed along, their names will live on.”

In my head, I imagine readers, fifty or a hundred years from now, searching second-hand bookstalls for copies of this book, just to find the secret memorials hidden in each one. Please make it so.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Avoid If You Dislike: In the author’s own words, “If you are sensitive or allergic to talk of the dead or non-living things, use this work in small doses.”

Perfect Accompaniment: “The spicy aroma of jerk chicken and rice and pea. The sizzle of plantain. Curried Goat.”

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

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