A bold, beautiful, heartfelt hymn to life and love and humanity – as viewed by Death herself.
There’s no plot as such to recap; it’s really just two streams of consciousness gradually intertwining: 20-something writer Wolf, living in solitary poverty in London and haunted by traumatic memories, and the immortal Mrs Death. The subject and approach reminded me of Neil Gaiman. His Death, in The Sandman graphic novels, was a cute goth girl; here her bodily form is an elderly Black woman, forever invisible and overlooked. Mrs Death, like Gaiman’s Endless, is as old as time if not older, and just as women give birth, death is also a woman’s job, quite logically.
Unlike Neil Gaiman, Salena Godden has both imagination and style. Her writing is more like Ali Smith’s – rhythmic, fast flowing, word-playing, form-breaking – and with the same social concerns, and being unashamed to speak up for love. Love of [gestures broadly] all this – life, humanity, the planet – which also means grief, loss and living with Mrs Death going about her business.
I have inadvertently found myself reading novels written by poets recently, and this is another one for that shelf. I heard Salena Godden read bits from this book before I started it, so I heard her rather lovely smoky tones while I was reading (she also reads the audio book version, which for those who do audio would be worth getting.). She started as a punk performance poet, where energy, word-sounds, rhythm and flow are everything, and this saturates her prose, giving it a really distinctive voice and beat. The narrative chapters are interspersed with Mrs Death’s songs and poems; some chapters are rendered as screenplay/script; some are staccato blank verse; some sketches; the short chapters and cut-up style and back and forth in time, between all kinds of reality gives it great momentum, despite the lack of plot, and keeps the reader on their toes.
It’s a debut novel and it feels like one, which isn’t disparaging, just that it’s so full of passion and questions. Along with all the existential life / death / time / love stuff, there’s a lot of social commentary, a lot of anger and grief about the human world and the planet we’re destroying, about poverty, oppression, injustice, and why why why. So it sometimes feels didactic and clunky, but then if you were Death and had been around forever, and saw how we are now, you’d probably have strong views on the matter as well. The real-life atrocities and true crime stuff jarred a bit, but that’s a personal taste thing probably. I liked this novel for its passionate intent, wit and invention, and I like Salena Godden for wearing her heart on her sleeve and not being afraid to speak up for Love, which is what this book is about, really.