Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Mrs Death Misses Death is about a girl, Wolf, who meets Mrs Death at nine-years-old when a fire in her tower block home kills her mother but leaves Wolf alive. She goes on to see and talk to Mrs Death—an old black woman who checks your groceries at the supermarket till; who cleans at the hospital; who goes unnoticed, uncelebrated—using her memories to explore the deaths of Wolf’s relatives and others whom Death cannot forget. 

Though about death and mourning, the book is more about what it means to be alive. Unsurprising from the pen of a poet, the novel plays with form—never quite laid out as you expect: the text is formed of poems, script, voice, song. It plays with language, uses repetitions and refrain, rhyme and rhythm to open experience, memory and imagination into a space that invites interpretation.

At the end of the book there are blank pages for the reader to commemorate their own dead, directly inviting contribution and collaboration. The old ledger, the family Bible with its lists of births, marriages and deaths is brought back to life. So while there is mourning, there is also a call to embrace living as Wolf herself tries not to miss Death but to chase Death’s sister, Life.

Inventive as well as playful, there are funny moments too. Life is always creating eggs so Death eats them, leaving the shells of boiled eggs like a trail for Wolf to follow.

It’s a hard book to summarise but best understood, I think, as a mantra or meditation on memory and how the dead live on in the thoughts of the living. Political and poetical, Mrs Death Misses Death is a beautiful and unusual book. Out earlier this year, Independent Bookshops have a different coloured cover to support their trade. Get yours here.

I’ll be reviewing Second Place by Rachel Cusk next.