Godden has been writing and performing poetry since she decided to move to London instead of going to university. “Godden is a poet” headlines my review because it is so evident in every page of this book. Every transition from unknown narrator, to fourth-wall breaking direct address, to poetry, to “normal” prose. Godden barely pays attention to consistency when she writes, because she is trying to get across an idea. All books are poor transcriptions of spoken word stories that buoyed humanity through tens of thousands of years, long before we invented written word, paper, and typesetting. This book just acknowledges that more than a lot of other books I have read.
Mrs Death Misses Death was written almost entirely in service to an idea. Sometimes you’re not sure what that idea is, and other times you’re frustrated that it is just an idea, without resolution or arc, but most of the time you are spell-bound by how Godden writes. This is “exactly the sort of thing you expect when a poet writes a novel”, to quote Sara Collins in her review for The Guardian.
This is all to say that Mrs Death Misses Death is interesting at a meta level. Perhaps more interesting than it is at the direct substantive level. The characters and story are secondary. The book is written by Wolf, a “bi-gender” young poet in London who meets death when she sells him some tobacco at a local store. Death, who has always been personified as male, tall, and slender, is shown here by Godden as a young, poor, black woman in London. Because this is the most overlooked, the least seen, kind of person. Wolf is captivated, maddeningly so, by Mrs Death, and Mrs Death is glad of the chance to speak to someone about the endless and laboured process of collecting souls as they leave life. Told in part by Wolf through testimony or flashbacks, sometimes in poems, other times from the perspective of Mrs Death - we explore this idea and the consequences of being or meeting death.
The book was written over the past five years, long before anyone could identify a spike protein, face mask, or socially distanced funeral out of a lineup. It was written before death figures filled our every news report for months and months on end. It was written independently of contract, i.e. Godden was writing without obligation to a publisher, and this freedom shows. Humanity and experience, largely unfiltered or unguided, are at the centre of this book, and I don’t think the same result could be achieved if it was rushed or shaped by the need to fulfil or attract external attention. Despite this “business ruins art” talk, the book has already been snapped up for film or TV by Green Door Productions (a company owned by Idris Elba), as well as receiving generally favourable reviews. It’s not an art-or-money situation.
Despite liking the idea of this book, and broadly adoring the language and sentiment, I didn’t find it entirely engaging or sticky. Whenever I was reading it, I enjoyed it, but I did not find myself coming back to it unintentionally. If you can, read this book in as few sittings as possible, I think.
It is not a book where things happen, or where particular ideas are explored explicitly. It seems to follow a very brief period of time, a snapshot. We get glimpses of some of the things Mrs Death has to deal with, and the sadness and anger she feels as being seen as a man, and as being the opposite of life — but we never see that in action. We are with Wolf for the entire book, and Wolf is your classic unreliable narrator, and starving poet. We explore the tension between a childhood trauma caused by the early death of Wolf’s mother and their subsequent upbringing by their bitter and probably cruel grandparents. This idea of intergenerational trauma was something that I loved in Queenie, but here it is not explored in as much length or detail.
I am glad I read this book, especially as somebody who loves books and poetry. I love that it wasn’t a “traditional” book, and how Godden sees the world, or at least frames the world, in some interesting ways. The sentiment of grief and unresolved trauma runs consistently throughout this book, affecting both Wolf and Mrs Death, a supposedly other-worldly spirit or idea. It normalises the idea that death is a hard thing for those left alive to process. It treats that difficulty with patience and I hope lends sympathy and empathy. But there still weren’t any moments which shone above all others in this book. I would recommend it to you if you love books and reading and language and ideas, but not if you love stories and characters. This from a man who can’t sit easily through a Chekov or Pinter play though, so don’t listen to me. ⭐3.5