Mrs Death Misses Death is not a normal kind of book. If you come to this expecting a prose story you’ll be a little surprised with what you find here, because it’s more like a series of poems and lyrical text that comes together to tell one story, but in a way that I’ve not really seen any other books do before. The narrative follows Wolf Willeford, a ‘Biracial, Bisexual, Bigender and Bipolar’ writer, who one day just before Christmas sees the perfect writing desk in the window of an antique shop that’s closing down; a desk that they know they need to help them with their writing; and a desk that once belonged to Mrs Death.
But the book isn’t just about Wolf, it’s also about Death. Not just the process of life coming to an end, although that does feature heavily in the narrative, but the actual person who travels through the world moving people on from life to death.
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But Death isn’t a black robed figure holding a scythe, it’s not a pale old man or a skeleton; instead Death is the someone invisible, someone who society has trained people to ignore and overlook. Death is a ‘poor old black woman, a homeless beggar-woman’. Not only does this make the Death, or rather Mrs Death, of this book a fairly unique take on the personification of death, but it also makes a lot of sense. It makes sense because Godden acknowledges that there are hierarchies to the world, that there are people who are looked down upon, or simply ignored altogether because of the way society has trained people to act, and Mrs Death would have to be one of the most ignored types of people to move so freely around us all.
Together Mrs Death and Wolf talk about the role of death in the world, the reasons why death happens, the people it happens to, and the effect it has on people. At times the book feels more like a stream of consciousness rather than a story, and there are sections written from Mrs Death’s point of view where we become swept up in her unique perspective. We get to see the world as she sees it, this being who has existed since the dawn of time, since humans took their first breaths. We see what hundreds of thousands of years of walking through the world unseen and ignored, crossing people over the threshold of death has done to her, how tired it has made her.
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It soon becomes apparent that as much as Wolf feels like they need Mrs Death to help them with their writing, Mrs Death needs Wolf too, she needs someone to talk to, to make her feel more human. But this also makes the book hard to read at times, because it’s not an easy topic to experience. We follow two characters who are struggling, with life, with death, and we get into their heads and see how much their existences have taken a toll on them, and whilst the book is about death it’s also heavily centred on mental health.
Mental health is such a strong component of Wolf’s story, and there are times where the narrative will have you questioning if what you’re reading is even real. There’s a part of the book where Wolf admits that they’re Bipolar, and there are a handful of moments where you begin to question if Mrs Death is even there or if it’s all part of Wolf’s mind, their worsening mental health; and this is even before their Bipolar is even brought up. Even by the end of the book it’s unclear if we’ve actually experienced a story of a troubled young person meeting the personification of Death, of if it’s simply the story of a troubled young person trying to find some sense of stability and happiness in their life.
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But I’m actually glad that we don’t get given a strong answer to this, that Godden allows the reader to look at the book and make up their own mind instead. Maybe we were hearing stories of people across time and their brushes with death, or maybe we just got to hear Wolf making up tales for their writing. In the end, it’ll mean whatever you want it to, and whatever conclusion you come to will be your own interpretation of this wonderfully dark, yet uplifting book that does its own thing in its own way.
Mrs Death Misses Death is out now from Canongate Books.