Saturday, 1 August 2020

The End of the Day by Claire North | review by Stephen Theaker

The beautiful goth Death of The Sandman and the stern DEATH of Discworld are extremely popular with fantasy fans, while the versions of Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) and Piers Anthony (On a Pale Horse) are also influential. Here we have a new book (Orbit hb, 416pp, £16.99) about the one we all meet at the end of the day. Drawing on previous portrayals, this Death changes its appearance and gender depending on the circumstances. But it is, along with its fellow horsepeople of the apocalypse, just a supporting character in this story.

Our lead is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death, its Silver Surfer, the one who comes before. Unlike poor Norrin Radd, Charlie applied for this job, had to pass an aptitude test to get it, and could resign at any time. (His predecessor is thoroughly enjoying her retirement.) He gets paid, he claims expenses. It's a regular job, albeit one that's harder than most to explain on a date. When Death is coming, Charlie is occasionally (rather than always, as the book's marketing suggests) sent by the Milton Keynes office to meet the imminently deceased.

He never knows why. Sometimes there's a chance to avert an accident; he's allowed to nudge people off-course if he can. He might be sent to hear a language spoken before its last living speaker passes away, or to see a multi-faith orchestra perform before a riot forces it out of action. Sometimes he's sent to pay tribute to a good life, or to mark the passing of an idea. Some people are glad to see him, others angry, and a few hope to bargain. He brings each of them a gift from his employer, not knowing what it means; the effect is always profound.

Perhaps that's enough for you to know whether or not this is a book you would find interesting. I'd had enough by about a third of the way in. Its short, unhappy chapters put me in mind of watching a series of balloons deflate, and it was always hard to summon the enthusiasm to read another. Having said that, it was clear fairly quickly what kind of book it was going to be – a guided tour of the world's most miserable situations, with little in the way of plot beyond the effect it all has on Charlie – and in those circumstances it's perhaps unfair to blame the book if you choose to keep reading.

If anything, I liked it a little more after that point. The book takes us through a period where Charlie starts to struggle with the demands of the job, physically and mentally, and not just because he gets beaten up a lot. He gets involved in increasingly dangerous situations, as criminals and law enforcement agencies begin to take an interest in his destinations, sometimes forcing Death itself to take a hand in protecting him.

But it's hard to understand why, in a world where everyone knows about Charlie's job, this kind of thing hasn't been happening since his first day on the job. You'd expect him to be followed by a news crew at all times. This isn't a book that's interested in exploring the societal ramifications of its central idea, or showing the systems at work in its world, as opposed to ours. Eventually Charlie gets a travelling companion, a chap who wants to return to New York to see his long-lost brother, and that was when I came closest to enjoying the book.

At times it reminded me of Martin Millar's urban fantasies, which raised some similar issues, but it lacked their fun and energy. It feels the weight of its social conscience, and strains so hard for relevance it hurts itself. Chapters often begin with snatches of unattributed dialogue (“I don’t want to generalise, but Mexicans are criminals”, “The schools can’t cope, the hospitals can’t cope”), that hope to give it a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, but it starts to feel like the High School Theatre Show sketch on SNL, where well-meaning teenagers perform their buzzwordy school plays.

Readers I respect have liked the book a lot, so don't necessarily be put off, but for me this was a trudge, a sit down for a few hours and force yourself to finish it kind of book, a four hundred page Observer editorial about everything that's wrong with the world. I think it's the book it wants to be: a sensitive, thoughtful, serious novel with an admirable grasp of the big issues, about how gruelling it must be for those working close to death: doctors, police officers, environmental scientists. I just didn't enjoy reading it. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #270.

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