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Mrs Death Misses Death

Salena Godden
Canongate, 2021
Review by John Siddique

The long-awaited novel by Salena Godden is a thing of beauty to hold in your hand. The wordplay of the title gives you a good sense of what is to come, because if Godden is one thing, she is a wordsmith, a word wrangler. You can trace – from her earliest days as Salena Saliva with the band Coldcut, through her decades of electrifying live performances, radio appearances, poetry collections and film work – the clear line of her distinctive voice leading to this novel. 

As Miles Davis once said, ‘Man, it takes a long time to sound like yourself’, but here, appearing to most as a bold, overnight success of a novel, we get the fullness of Godden’s voice as she tells the story of a young, not very well, writer called Wolf Willeford who encounters the personification of death, and tells the meta-story of his relationship with her as they write the book that is in our hands. 

Mrs Death first appears to Wolf when he is very young, and appears again in the novel when she is tired of her work, tired of life, and wants to tell someone who will listen to her story. Who better than a young writer? Wolf discovers Mrs Death’s old desk in an antique shop that is closing down and buys it, the desk becoming a channel the stories flow through into his writing.

As she leads Wolf through time and the world, as they bear witness together and discuss the past and the future of humankind (in a modernised, Dickensian way), Wolf reflects on the losses in his own life. Throughout the book, an image of The Tower looms – The Tower of Tarot, Grenfell Tower, A Tower of Death in Spain, and a tower that is used as a writers’ retreat. Godden’s wordplay swirls in an often quite hallucinatory way, and so these fixed points are helpful for the reader to set their eye upon.

The ordinariness of Mrs Death is quite astounding – at one point we see her as a cleaner, a member of the janitorial staff in a hospital. This image affected your reviewer more than almost any other word picture in the book. Of course, she would be ordinary; no grand grim reaper she, but a black woman cleaning on a hospital ward.

For the sheer breath-taking quality of Mrs Death’s voice, Salena Godden plays to her writer’s strengths at full power. The novel, however, is still very much a poem in its structure, rather than a linear narrative. Such is the intensity of the writer’s voice – her ability to dance with language as she explores the vasana, or pain-body, of our current times – there is sometimes not much room for the reader to breathe. That said, Godden has created something quite new in the shifting landscape of the text, something like a performative novel.

A thoroughly 21st-century book, you can’t look away from what you are seeing. It is so strong, I found myself automatically reaching out for it, wanting it to continue. One thing is sure, you are not going to come out the same way you went in. It will stay in your body, and that is a rare thing for a book these days.