Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
After a year of daily Covid death reports, death really wasn’t something I wanted to hear any more of, let alone read a whole book about it. But I made an exception for Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death, and I couldn’t be happier that I took the time to acquaint myself with Mrs Death. This touching and sharply witty meditation on death succeeds in delivering a fresh take on a topic that has been around for as long as, well, life.
Think of death, and the Grim Reaper comes to mind. In Godden’s novel, the maleness of death is discarded with a hearty chuckle. Instead death takes the form of a black, working-class woman in a wonderfully feminist rewriting of Western cultural preconceptions:
And only she who is invisible can do the work of Death. And there is no human more invisible, more readily talked over, ignored, betrayed and easy to walk past than a woman.
Mrs Death has, however, become exhausted after an eternity doing her trade, and in order to offload, reveals herself to Wolfie, a struggling young writer. Wolfie becomes the scribe for Mrs Death’s life — or death — story, and with her he time-travels through various deaths, from Jack the Ripper to the unsolved murder of Inga Maria Hauser, a German backpacker whose body was discovered in a forest in County Antrim in the Eighties. Through these deaths, Wolfie reflects on his first encounter with Mrs Death as a child, when he survived a devastating fire in his tower block. As the book’s title puts, it, Mrs Death missed death then, but she took others, and Wolfie is left wondering why some live on while others don’t.
Godden navigates the narrative with a distinctive mixture of wit, philosophical ponderings and political commentary. Mrs Death has a complex relationship with her sister Life as well as Time, whom they both have an affair with, and this lends itself to some amusing, poetic language acrobatics:
Lifetime. Life. Time. Life will sing gaily to me, You see, it’s an actual phrase. The human will say ‘time of death’ for a reason, a human being will have only one ‘time of death’, just once, but they can have a life time all the time, life, time, time of their lives, all their life!
The joyfulness alternates with angrier moments; Wolfie’s story is one of loss, and the full extent of his struggles unfolds as he delves deeper into Mrs Death’s stories.
Into the story is woven also a critical look at gender, race and poverty, and Godden’s political commentary flows naturally alongside the story. The parallels of Wolfie’s fate to the Grenfell tragedy are clear: “Don’t put poor people in danger by building shitty cheap housing out of flammable materials: fix the fire alarms, attach sprinklers… Can you smell smoke?”
The only parts where Godden’s prose stumbles are some of the meditative parts where the otherwise unique novel falls back on clichés and veers into fashionable life advice: “To die is to have been alive, that is why you must live: live free, live wild, live true and live love alive. Let the fire burn and the light blind you. Let your belly get full and fat and embarrass you. Let your words fall out and tumble carelessly and honestly.” It is beautifully written, yes, but I couldn’t help but feel that the general sentiment was better suited to Instagram clichés than to something coming out of the mouth of Mrs Death.
It’s nowhere near a deadly sin, though, and in any case I’m happy to forgive Mrs Death her sins. Godden delivers a treat that is — as clichéd as I may sound myself now — sad, life-affirming and sharply sarcastic all in one.
Anna is a journalist and bookworm.
Salena Godden, Mrs Death Misses Death (Canongate, 2021). 978-1838851194, 304 pp., hardback.
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