I don’t think a novel’s title alone has convinced me I’d want to read it before but I couldn’t resist that wordplay: Mrs Death Misses Death promised to be clever, funny and all about a subject we privileged Westerners do our best to sanitise with all sorts of euphemisms. Salena Godden’s debut rubs our faces in what none of us can avoid through Wolf Willeford’s encounter with Mrs Death, thanks to buying her desk from a second-hand furniture shop.
Because once you have known Mrs Death, there is no unknowing her
Wolf has already had one brush with Mrs Death. His mother was killed when their apartment building went up in flames one night, screaming at her nine-year-old son to run. Wolf was reluctantly taken in by his grandparents – Grandma Rose, indifferent, Old Man Willeford a brutal tyrant. He’s in his early twenties when he spots Mrs Death’s desk on his way home from a three-night bender and a chilly exchange with a cashier in the Co-op. The desk calls to him. He’s convinced if he spends his rent on it the book he’s been struggling to write will miraculously flow. Instead, he finds himself collating the diaries of its owner, not the scythe-bearing hooded man of legend but an elderly black woman who fades into the background, the last person anyone expects to hold their life and the lives of their loved ones in her hands. Mrs Death is tired of her endless work, keen to unburden herself and Wolf is eager to listen, time travelling to all manner of places with her. As he records her many stories, Wolf recalls his own. Then Mrs Death disappears leaving him with his loneliness.
I am Death. In a way I am just a glorified rubbish collector. I am a cleaner. I clean.
Godden’s name is new to me but the novel’s press release tells me she’s a much admired performance poet which explains both that brilliant title and the rhythm of this novel made up of Mrs Death’s ruminations, songs and stories coupled with Wolf’s increasingly scattered thoughts. From its punchy first section to its final pages made up of the sketchy Willeford family tree enumerating many violent deaths, Godden’s novel never lets her readers off the hook, exploring gender, class and race with humour and humanity, all within the context of that which none of us can escape. Her writing is both playful and sobering, witty and smart. It made me laugh out loud and brought me up short. Hard to know what Godden might tackle after bringing her readers face to face with what we most want to avoid, but whatever it is I’ll be reading it.
Canongate Books: Edinburgh 9781838851194 304 pages Hardback