Book #31

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn’t met Death in person – a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen.

Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death’s scribe, and begins to write her memoirs. Using their desk as a vessel and conduit, Wolf travels across time and place with Mrs Death to witness deaths of past and present and discuss what the future holds for humanity. As the two reflect on the losses they have experienced – or, in the case of Mrs Death, facilitated – their friendship grows into a surprising affirmation of hope, resilience and love. All the while, despite her world-weariness, Death must continue to hold humans’ fates in her hands, appearing in our lives when we least expect her.

The first few pages of this novel hit me badly; a shock I wasn’t expecting, they spoke to me of death and the realities of it, the truths which apply to us all, and to those we have lost. It’s very difficult to read these things which you already know, but are trying to forget. Things that scare you, things which make you so so sad, are starkly expressed in Godden’s voice, in an almost put that in your pipe and smoke it attitude. There were tears, there was hurt, there was an uncontrollable urge not to continue simply because I was frightened of these facts - again, facts I was already more than aware of.

Soon, these raw reminders cease as Godden eases us into the story of Wolf, a young writer tasked with writing the story of Mrs Death - she who will come for us at our final moments. Their relationship is dreamlike and somewhat whimsical, with Mrs Death pulling stories and songs from her head and Wolf scribbling them down. These can spain from detailed and poignant, to short and punchy, all of them inserting new thoughts about death into our brains.

Additionally, we see parts of Wolf’s life and come to see how troubled he is within that life. From a childhood filled with abuse, to a traumatic fire taking the life of his mother, he has not been dealt a fair hand. He has a fascination with death, and with Mrs Death, and it’s gorgeous to see where his fascinations lead him.

There was something lacking for me, however, and after some reflection I feel it could’ve been tighter and more pulled together. Godden seems to be exploring new and unique ways to write a novel, but in doing so has tried to include many great things to the detriment of linchpinning her plot. I’d also have loved more of a solid and endearing relationship between the two protagonists, but I understand why this wasn’t the case. I’m aware this style could be something which other readers will enjoy, so although it’s not a huge criticism, it did make me lose some engagement.

Ultimately, Godden is asking us questions and leaving us to ponder them, the most important of which is - how many times has Mrs Death missed you?

“Because once you have known Mrs Death there is no unknowing her. You have a mourning that sits inside you. It’s like having a stone in your centre; time smooths the edges like a pebble in a river, but it’s always there – a stone is a stone. If you’ve known loss, you’ll know this stone, you will carry a stone of your own – this pain and weight – and you’ll know what I mean. It is a tattoo under the inside of you that cannot fade or be removed. There is no unknowing the memory that a certain date and time triggers: the smell of the season, the time, the weather . . . We replay it, the jolt, the shock, the finality of death."