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Mrs Death Misses Death

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Mrs Death tells her intoxicating story in this life-affirming fire-starter of a novel.

Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn’t met Death in person – a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen.

Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death’s scribe, and begins to write her memoirs. Using their desk as a vessel and conduit, Wolf travels across time and place with Mrs Death to witness deaths of past and present and discuss what the future holds for humanity. As the two reflect on the losses they have experienced – or, in the case of Mrs Death, facilitated – their friendship grows into a surprising affirmation of hope, resilience and love. All the while, despite her world-weariness, Death must continue to hold humans’ fates in her hands, appearing in our lives when we least expect her . . .

302 pages, Hardcover

First published January 28, 2021

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Salena Godden

18 books92 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 981 reviews
Profile Image for Jasmine.
213 reviews196 followers
February 1, 2022
Mrs Death Misses Death is a short novel, but is moving, and at times, difficult to read due to the subject matter.

It is exhausting being Mrs Death. Everyone believes Death is the Grim Reaper. No one would guess that Death is an older Black, working-class woman. Mrs Death has been there at the end of peoples’ lives since the First Morning of the First Mourning.

Now, in the present day, Mrs Death wishes to tell her story to a willing ear. Wolf Willeford is more than willing to transcribe Mrs Death’s words. He is no stranger to death, having survived a fire that killed many, including his mother.

When he sits at The Desk, he can hear Mrs Death’s words, songs, and poems. As the two work together, they form a close bond and have hope for humanity.

I have never read a book like this before. This book skillfully combines prose and verse in a very engaging way. I would love to listen to this as an audiobook.

Death is literally in the title, so be fair warned that this isn’t always a nice and cozy story. There are discussions on real-life serial killers and their victims, which are graphic. They do not glamourize it but remind the reader that it happened. The author also discusses mental health, BLM, police brutality, and racism.

I will read whatever Salena Godden writes in the future, even if it is merely a grocery list.

Thank you to Canongate for providing an arc via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Profile Image for Barbara.
1,308 reviews661 followers
January 31, 2022
In author Salena Godden’s version, death is a black woman who can shape-shift to accomplish her duties. I like her premise, that death is a female, usually an older woman who is generally unseen. And Mrs. Death is a bit sassy in Godden’s hands.

Godden brings her poetic skills in writing this amusing story, of Mrs. Death unburdening her story to Woof Willeford, a struggling author who buys a magic desk. Through the desk, Mrs. Death takes Woof with her while she explains her story. I listened to the audio narrated by the author herself. She tells her story in a stream-of-conscious format which works well with her poetic skills.

Mrs. Death tells of her work, so we see death through a different lens. She’s not always crazy about the tragedy of death, the horror of death, the details of death. Godden writes of the tragedy and comedy of death. It’s a rumination on death.

This is an interesting audio. The rhythm of Godden’s voice adds to the story. I enjoyed this strange and interesting story.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,169 followers
August 14, 2021
Now shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize


This book contains dead people.

This book cannot see the future. This book is dabbling in the past. This book is not about funerals although funerals are mentioned. You do not have to wear black to read this work. You do not have to bring flowers.

Caution: This work contains traces of eulogy.

Warning: This work contains violent deaths.

Spoiler alert: We will all die in the end.

Longlisted for the 2021 Gordon Burn Prize, a prize which describes itself as follows:

The Gordon Burn Prize recognises literature that is forward-thinking and fearless in its ambition and execution, often playing with style, pushing boundaries, crossing genres or challenging readers’ expectations.

Like Gordon’s own work, the prize is open to a diverse range of themes and perspectives drawn from the breadth of today’s cultural and social concerns. It welcomes books by writers emerging from backgrounds underrepresented in the mainstream literary culture.

This, the debut novel by poet and performance artist Salena Godden (see here for perhaps her best known work Red- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=My85d...) certainly fits that billing.

It begins with the extract that opens my review and then the narrator, Wolf Willeford, explains:

These are the collected memoirs of Mrs Death, edited and compiled by me, Wolf Willeford. I’m a poet and I live in the attic rooms of the Forest Tavern in East London. Contained here are some of Mrs Death’s private diary entries, some stories, poems and pieces of conversations I have had with Mrs Death; she who is Death, the woman who is the boss at the end of all of us. I share this hoping that it is the beginning of your own conversation with yourself and with your own precious time here.

Mrs Death herself is both the most significant figure at the end of every life and yet the least significant in our everyday world:

Mrs Death is everywhere. She is hiding in plain sight. She is the working woman. She works in the shops and in the markets and laundrettes and factories. Mrs Death is the woman we hardly see, the woman we do not care to see. She is the person we ignore, she is the pause in the silence, she is the invisible woman. She is the refugee at the border. She is the cleaner. She is the cab driver. She is the backing singer we never bother to learn the name of.

She is nobody and she is everybody. She is the homeless person begging for change outside the train station. Mrs Death is the spirit of the ignored and the saint of the betrayed. She is the first woman. Mrs Death is the first mother of all mothers. She is calling to us all now. She is weeping. She is cradling her crumbling world. She is holding this toxic and wounded planet to her cold breast. She is sitting next to you on the bus. She is amongst us. I got it wrong. Mrs Death is not the wife of Death. No. And she is not the mother of Death. No. She is Death, and she gets the final say.

or as Mrs Death herself explains:

The greatest trick man played was making you believe I was a man. They erased me and made you all believe that Death was male in spirit – the Grim Reaper in a black hood with a scythe. Remarkable that nobody questioned it really, don’t you think? For surely only she who bears it, she who gave you life, can be she who has the power to take it. The one is she. And only she who is invisible can do the work of Death. And there is no human more invisible, more readily talked over, ignored, betrayed and easy to walk past than a woman; than a poor old black woman, a homeless black beggar-woman with knotty natty hair, broken back, walking ever so slow, slow, slow, pushing a shopping trolley full of plastic bottles.

The novel is written in a hybrid form including poems, letters, diary entries, playscript-style dialogues, a transcript of Mrs Death undergoing psychiatric investigation and even a chapter narrated by a desk, found by Wolf in an antique shop, a desk that provides Wolf access to Mrs Death's stories.

Many of the deaths featured in the novel are real (e.g. of Sarah Reed or the unsolved murder of German backpacker Inga Maria Hauser in Ireland which closes the novel) or lightly fictionalised (Wolf's mother dies in a Greenfell-like fire, which he escapes, when he is 8), although the author has said that others (such as the Red Tower, which itself is rather reminiscent of her poem Red, and the story of Tilly Tuppence, Jack the Ripper's first victim) came to her in dreams, so vivid that she had to Google them to find out if they were based on real incidents or stories.

But Godden also aimed for this to be a short novel, indeed edited it heavily to achieve that. She has mentioned in interviews an aim to keep it to 123 pages, in part to reduce the physical weight of the novel, although oddly the hardback I read was over 300 pages, albeit well spaced out and with plenty of white on the page, which makes me wonder if the publisher's desire for a certain length of book overrode the author's intention.

One approach Godden used to condense the text was to turn what originally she wrote as essays into shorter poems, such as 'Mrs Death in Holloway Prison' featuring Sarah Reed's story, giving the reader time to pause, and think and to "say her name." This is a broken prose poem which begins:

Say Her Name: For Sarah Reed, Black Lives Matter

Sarah suffered
Sarah was falsely arrested
for shoplifting in Regent Street
the policeman was seen on CCTV
dragging Sarah by her hair
while punching her
repeatedly in the face
his name was PC James Kiddie
he was subject to a number
of previous complaints
PC Kiddie was a liability
a tragedy waiting to happen
Sarah suffered
mental health issues
ever since the sudden death
of her newborn baby

While many deaths are featured, inevitably, as Wolf explains in his preface, this book does not mention every person that has ever died – if you wished this book to have mentioned another death, we can only apologise now in advance, for not knowing

but at the novel's end, and in a moving touch, Godden leaves six pages blank for readers to fill in details of those whose deaths they were thinking of when they read the novel:

Together you and I can address this: now I ask you to write the name that came to your mind as you read this story. Please add your loved one's name on one of these blank pages, maybe add a date, a memory or a prayer. In this one act of remembrance we will be united. From now on every single person who reads this book will know their copy contains their own dead. As time passes, if this book is borrowed or passed along, the names will live on. This will be universal and timeless. This is our private ritual.

Now, this book contains not just the dead Wolf may know of and that Mrs Death may mention, but the names each of you may want to remember here today. And in thefuture anyone who reads your copy of this book will read that handwritten name and speak it aloud.

One day they may read your own name. One day they may read mine. In this we are connected. We share these names of our loved ones in the whisper of the last page turning, over the years to come.

A compassionate yet literarily innovative novel, which is a rare but wonderful combination and a novel that really should feature on the Booker and Goldsmiths Prizes. 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,744 reviews1,192 followers
January 15, 2022
When hate is rising then love can only rise higher.

An astonishing, fragmentary, genre-defying, debut novel by the English performance poet and activist Salena Godden.

One which manages to simultaneously deal with perhaps the oldest theme of all (death) and yet one that is more topical than ever in the COVID era

The book’s central conceit is set out in its second page

The greatest trick man played was making you believe I was a man. They erased me and made you all believe that Death was male in spirit – the Grim Reaper in a black hood with a scythe. Remarkable that nobody questioned it really, don’t you think? For surely only she who bears it, she who gave you life, can be she who has the power to take it. The one is she. And only she who is invisible can do the work of Death. And there is no human more invisible, more readily talked over, ignored, betrayed and easy to walk past than a woman; than a poor old black woman, a homeless black beggar-woman with knotty natty hair, broken back, walking ever so slow, slow, slow, pushing a shopping trolley full of plastic bottles.

And later we read

Mrs Death is everywhere. She is hiding in plain sight. She is the working woman. She works in the shops and in the markets and laundrettes and factories. Mrs Death is the woman we hardly see, the woman we do not care to see. She is the person we ignore, she is the pause in the silence, she is the invisible woman. She is the refugee at the border. She is the cleaner. She is the cab driver. She is the backing singer we never bother to learn the name of ….. She is the homeless person begging for change outside the train station. Mrs Death is the spirit of the ignored and the saint of the betrayed.

But Mrs Death has reached exhaustion and saturation – despite all the technology and communication available to mankind what she and her lover Time and sister Life had expected to be a quiet 21st Century, instead she has to control her sister’s Life fecundity and also deal with greater than ever untimely death “war and deconstruction, famine and murder”.

She decides as a result to unburden herself to a young writer Wolf Willeford – who she first encountered when Wolf escaped from a Grenfell Tower type incident in which his mother died (his father having earlier committed suicide by drowning). Wolf, then nine, sees Death and rages at her and that memory, which has persisted with her, causes her to reveal herself to him and to share her memories and thoughts by way of an antique desk which Wolf finds himself acquiring.

The novel then unfolds in a series of prose chapters ostensibly narrated by either Wolf or Mrs Death (with one chapter by the Desk) – albeit with the two’s stories coalescing (for example an interview with Mrs Death and a psychiatric seems to morph into Wolf being in hospital) – these being interleaved with copious poetry.

Mrs Death’s preoccupation naturally is death and the book is filled with references - often it has to be said deeply disturbing – and which range from the contemporary (the Syrian Civil War, mass school shootings in the USA, drowning refugees, the Essex Lorry deaths, climate change, Grenfell Tower, the unsolved murder of Ingia Maria Hauser, the negligent care that lead to the suicide of Sarah Reed – a chapter written as a powerful poem, Joanne Dennahy – generally regarded as the most dangerous female in the UK prison system and whose story I have to say I found the closest to being gratuitous) to the historical (for example the Zong Massacre, the Dyatlov Pass incident, the Spanish Inquisition, Jack the Ripper, Myra Hindley).

Wolf’s is his own family story – which can also be disturbing and difficult.

Now all of this may make this seem like the book is extremely bleak and black and much of it is – but actually bleakness is not how the book ends.

From a poet whose most famous poems (widely performed by her and by others at many protest marches from ER to #MeToo to BLM) include “Pessimism is for Lightweights” (which also provided the title of her published collection) and Courage is a Muscle” – its is no surprise that this is actually a book which despite its darkness has a message about optimism, endurance, activism and courage.

A chapter “Mrs Death: You Could be Heroes” starts with mourning the death of inspirational heroes like Cohen, Bowie and Prince before arguing that true heroes are activists, volunteers, protesters, health service workers, campaigners for “libraries, museums, galleries, independent bookshops … beautiful places where thinkers and writers and artists [can] meet and share work”

A previous chapter “Mrs Death: I know a Lot of Dead People Now” which philosophises that knowledge and recognition of the inevitability of death (not just yours but the death of all your family and friends) is vital for life, is both mirrored and countered in a final prose section “Wolf: The Tower” where Wolf encounters Life who says that living your own life fully for the moment and in the knowledge of the life of all your friends and family is what life is really about.

The book is not always easy to follow – a book that for me was one I more experienced and tried to absorb than I was able to fully follow. Just as one example this final prose section is followed by nearly 50 pages of fragmented and heavily spaced prose poetry-style diary entries whose significance was largely lost on me and which seemed to heavily dilute the power of the previous section

But after the acknowledgements the book ends very powerfully – with six pages left blank for readers to

“write the name that came to mind as you read this story …. Please add your loved one's name on one of these blank pages, maybe add a date, a memory or a prayer. In this one act of remembrance we will be united. From now on every single person who reads this book will know their copy contains their own dead. As time passes, if this book is borrowed or passed along, the names will live on …… One day they may read your own name. One day they may read mine. In this we are connected. We share these names of our loved ones in the whisper of the last page turning, over the years to come.”
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,389 reviews2,275 followers
February 3, 2021
Solid premise, shaky execution.

Mrs. Death Misses Death is Salena Godden’s first prose publication. The book is told in poetry and prose and follows Mrs. Death who is a Black Woman tired of doing this “job” she’s been doing since the beginning of time. In a near death experience, Wolf is saved from a fire and years later he is a struggling writer who ends up being the one to write Mrs. Death memoir. Wolf, who is no stranger to death finds it thrilling to be the one to tell the story of Mrs. Death. She takes him back in time, to places and major events that shaped her career. They both get to look at life through the lens of death, for the future, one thing is certain- death.

Let me start with the things I loved.

The Title: I mean, who does not love a great title? This one was so fresh and such great play on words.

The Premise: I can say I have never read a premise like this. Death herself gets someone to write a memoir about her life. INJECT THIS IN MY VEINS! I mean seriously, how utterly original is this premise.

Death as a Black Woman Ok, so I know this was probably explored already somewhere but for me, personally, I have always pictured death as a man. I do not know why I thought death had to be a man. Also, even if I did picture death as a woman, I would not have picture her as Black or a Black married woman. I think for me, this was well executed by the author, dispelling the myth that death had to be a man.
The greatest trick man played was making you believe I was man. They erased me and made you all believe that Death was a male in spirit- the Grim Reaper. For surely only she who bears it, she who gave you life, can be she who has the power to take it. And there is no human more invisible, more easily talked over, ignored, betrayed and easy to walk pass than a woman; than a poor old black woman.

Yes, this entire paragraph had me shaking my head so much, my neck hurt. I loved that the author put forward this very solid premise to build on.

Exploring death Let’s be real, we are all going to die, yet, this is something I don’t think we talk a lot about. Or if we do it is generally clouded in fear. Death is the only thing we have surety about yet, as the book says, we don’t call it by name when it happens. We say, “pass on, passed…” anything but death. Without death, there is no life, and I enjoyed how the author was able to position death as something we should think about, maybe not harp on but at least think about. I liked that it is a troubled young writer who had experiences with people dying that got to have a friendship with Death. That for me really gave the theme the depth it needed.

The Writing It is clear Salena Godden can write. This is my first introduction to her work, and she writes solidly. I have never read any of her poetry so it was great seeing a bit of it included in this book. She writes convincingly so much so, I started feeling sorry for Mrs. Death.

Historical Look In the book Mrs. Death refers some deaths that made international news, or deaths that are still unsolved or you may not know about. I think getting a little history lesson within the book worked so seamlessly.

What I didn’t love
Above I gushed about how strong a premise this book had. When I see a strong premise not strongly executed it makes me sad, maybe even a little mad because I know with tighter edits and stronger editor the book would have been great.
I felt the first 25% of the book was phenomenal, the writing, introduction of characters, scenes and Mrs. Death narration was flawless. Then, it all started to wane. Death in itself is a very board topic, it’s been happening since the beginning of time- there are so many ways to explore the topic and I think that’s where the author (maybe even the editor) may have went wrong, she tried to do entirely too much instead of keeping it tighter and more focused. At one point I was like, “huh, how dis even drop in yasso?!!” that for me was a little infuriating.

While I didn’t absolutely love it, I know there are others who may enjoy it. I think one thing that really stood out for me was Mrs. Death saying,
I’ve often wondered how very different this living life would be if we were born with our expiry date stamped on our foreheads. I mean, if we knew exactly how long and little time we have left to love each other, maybe then we would be more kind and loving. Imagine if we knew our death date. How different we would live, maybe, and yes I know, maybe not.

Of course I well be reading more of what Salena Godden comes with next. Thanks Cannongate for sending me this ARC.
Profile Image for ReadAlongWithSue .
2,650 reviews170 followers
September 23, 2022
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A poetic read.

I thought I’d give this a go based on some really good recommendations.
It’s a superbly written piece of work which I devoured BUT and a big but, by the middle of it I need to be honest here, I felt quite depressed and miserable.

I don’t think I knew what to expect. Yes it’s got the word “death” in it so I was expecting some grief.
Listening to this being read by the author on audio took on an entire meaning as it’s read harrowingly.
The voice is somber and I just don’t think (looking back) I should have chosen to read/listen to it.

Not with all the deaths with the pandemic etc.
Profile Image for Mel (Epic Reading).
895 reviews274 followers
February 9, 2022
Let's start with a couple things: this is not a novel, story or even really a narrative of any kind. Second, I skimmed the last half hoping for some semblance of an "ah-ha, I get it" moment; but sadly it never materialized.
I'm not sure what exactly Salena Godden was going for but it doesn't work for me. In Mrs Death Misses Death there are poems, songs, Q/A 'interviews', and odd ramblings/rantings without any real purpose except one. To make you feel bad about being alive. I actually the think the intent that Godden meant was to make people appreciate being alive (or at least the last few pages of the book scream this at the reader) but instead I just felt sad at how many ways people can tragically die (seriously at least 100 ways over history are discussed here, almost all tragic or horrific) and the constant nagging reminder that we all die. Maybe it's just me, maybe it's the times (2 years into the Covid pandemic) but I am just not in need of the reminder that we all die. I'm painfully aware thanks.
I believe this was supposed to be a unique, powerful 'story' told partially by the character of Death herself (yes a woman), and by a confusing character named Wolf. We get a couple other random commentary chapters thrown in for good measure but mostly it's about Wolf's struggles with mental health and the idea of why we live; and Death's remorse at having to take lives (plus some extensive comments on when people are 'misses' or nearly die). There could have maybe been a timeline set-up here that was manageable or could be followed; but the way the book is written it just gets lost.
I'm sure there will be people out there that love this and think it truly bohemian and adore it's uniqueness. I am not one of those people in this instance.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
Profile Image for Louise Wilson.
2,673 reviews1,607 followers
January 22, 2021
***TRIGGER WRNINGS*** There's stories of massacre, racial attacks, suicide, terrorism, child death, animal death, car crash, in fact, anything that you can die from.

Mre death has had enough. She's exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn't met Death in person = a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen. Wolf becomes Mrs Death's scribe, and begins to write her memoirs.

The story is written in part prose and th othe part poetry. There is some similarities to the Grenfall Tower fire as Wolf's family died in a tower block fire. The entire book tells us stories and conversations about death. It also covers many topics including: sexual abuse, domestic abuse and police brutality. There's also a fair amount of foul language. This is a thought provoking read but it won't b for wveryone due to some of it's content.

would like to thank #NetGalley, #Canongate and the author #SalenaGodden for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Emma.
93 reviews77 followers
January 19, 2021

The first 80 or so pages of this book was easily 5 star - I loved it! Such a refreshingly honest book about death that manages to be both very funny and of course very sad at times too.

I just felt the style started to get too disjointed and the poetry became a bit tiresome and almost didn't really bring anything to the book for me. I felt like it was a really great idea that was executed perfectly to begin with and then got messy and lost its way. Still, some excellent writing and one I've marked a few passages in to keep and read again.
Profile Image for Jenny Lawson.
Author 12 books16.9k followers
February 3, 2022
I love the premise of this short novel but the experimental style made it a bit hard to understand at times.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,392 reviews2,376 followers
January 28, 2021
(I read this in 2020 but somehow forgot to post my review - it's published today).

This is extraordinary! Brimming with originality, imagination, power and heart, this ranges widely through literary form (prose, poetry, play-script), and through time though it has its political eye firmly on our present from the intimated Grenfell Fire to Sarah Reed ('Mrs Death in Holloway Prison: Say Her Name: For Sarah Reed, Black Lives Matter').

Through the acquisition of a 'magic' desk, Wolf (whose mother perished in the tower block fire) learns to hear the voice of Mrs Death whose silenced profile and invisibility make her, of course!, an old, Black woman. A struggling writer, Wolf has found his subject.

It's hard to convey the genius of this book: it's such easy reading in the way it slips down effortlessly yet the subject matter can be hard at times. For me, the quality of the writing is part Dickens neo-Gothic, part up-to-the moment social commentary, part lyrical poetry - and the cool playfulness of the title (Mrs... misses) gives a taster of the writing. A thrilling piece of writing that deserves to win literary prizes.

Many thanks to Canongate for an ARC via NetGalley
Profile Image for Magdalena.
181 reviews166 followers
January 13, 2023
Utterly beautiful. I am at a loss for words. So unique, compelling, touching, heartbreaking and yet funny at times. It's a book that's going to stay with me for a very long time. A must read.
Profile Image for Misha.
335 reviews80 followers
May 10, 2022
I’m setting this aside at 50%, I’ve been dragging my feet through this book for months, and I just don’t think my enjoyment will change. I’m totally disappointed. I was primed to love this.

One of my absolute favorite characteristics in books is WEIRDNESS. I’m exactly the target audience for experimental storytelling. The premise sounded awesome, but the execution just fell so short. The weirdness felt so surface level. It gave the book this Fake-Deep feel.
you’re only human
you’re only womankind
you’re only human being
you’re only mankind, be kind
the first sunrise, the first sunset
you’re only human, you’re only woman
you’re only man, human, be kind
human being kind human being

you’re only human, you’re only woman
you’re only human, you’re only man
you’re only human, human being
be kind

*Massages temples exhaustedly*

Mrs Death Misses Death: This is about you and me and us. This is her story, the story, the story of the life and the time of the death of us. This is the life of life and the time of time. For what a time it is and what a time it was and what a time it will be. The Dance of Time and Life and Death, the hours and the breath, the sky and space. The last big sleep. All your fears are here, all your fears are inside here.

All your fears are here, inside here.

All your fears are here, in here, in here, in here…

All your fears are here
Inside here.

I just— it feels so juvenile to me. This is the kind of unpolished, stream of consciousness poetry you scribble in your teenage math journal while blasting Fall Out Boy.

We also had these pop culture references that just felt cheap and jarring:

A family of monkeys feel loss when they lose a member of their group. The killing of Harambe! Why did they kill Harambe? Why don’t we respect and save the animals, Mrs Death? What will we do when the last elephants are extinct, Mrs Death? Who will save the turtles and the coral reefs and the rainforests?

This doesn’t read as clever or intelligent to me. Harambe? Is that supposed to be funny? It feels outdated.

The tone of Mrs Death Misses Death is the equivalent of starting an essay with: ‘Good afternoon. My essay will cover the topic of X. In this essay, I will explore X, Y, and Z.’ …while also struggling to hit the required word count. It was somehow simultaneously convoluted and too on the nose.

To end on a positive note, this is my favorite quote from the book:

And let’s hope that if you do kill yourself, you are well over forty years old, because to kill yourself before age forty is like murdering a stranger.

What a fantastic line.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
May 4, 2022
This is a book that has been on my radar since friends in the Mookse group tipped it for some of last year's prize lists, and it did not disappoint me, as it is lively, innovative, often funny and thought provoking. Godden chooses to explore life and death via Wolf, a child orphaned by a Grenfell-like fire who is now a young adult, and their internal conversations with Mrs Death, a feminist reimagining of the Grim Reaper. It is a much shorter book than its page count would suggest, as there is plenty of blank space and substantial parts of it are written in blank verse.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,549 reviews2,537 followers
January 28, 2021
(Nearly 4.5) Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined.

What if Death wasn’t the male Grim Reaper stereotype? What if, instead, she was a poor black woman – a bag lady on a bus, or a hospital cleaner? In this playful and lilting story, we learn of Mrs Death’s work via her unwitting medium, Wolf Willeford, who one Christmas Eve goes walking in London’s Brick Lane area and buys an irresistible desk that reveals flashes of historical deaths. Once Mrs Death’s desk (and resentful at not being a piano), it now transmits her stories to Wolf, giving a whole new meaning to the term ghost writer. Wolf compiles and edits her memoirs, which take the form of diary entries, poems, and songs.

It’s never been more stressful to be Death, what with civil war in Syria, school shootings in the USA, and refugees drowning off the coast of France. But although the book’s frame of reference is up to the minute, wrongful deaths are nothing new, so occasional vignettes dramatize untimely demises – especially of black women – across the centuries: from the days of slavery to Jack the Ripper to police custody a few years ago. There are so many ways to die:
really nearly took that other plane on 9/11
had a coconut fall on your head
saw your village being bombed
slipped taking a selfie by the Grand Canyon
had a fight with an alligator
got stranded in a fierce and fast-moving bushfire

Speaking of fire, and of the title, Wolf (biracial, nonbinary, and possibly bipolar) is here to narrate only because Mrs Death missed one. Their mum died in a house fire. Wolf should have died that day, too, but heard a voice saying “Wake up, Wolf … Can you smell smoke?” Were they spared deliberately, or did Mrs Death make a mistake? (After all, we learn that when a patient briefly wakes up on the operating table before dying for good, it’s because Mrs Death’s printer got jammed.)

Where I think the novel really succeeds is in balancing its two levels: the cosmic, in which Life and Death are sisters and Time is Death’s lover in a sort of creation myth; and the personal, in which Wolf’s family tree, printed at the end, is an appalling litany of accidental deaths and executions. It’s easy to see why Wolf is so traumatized, but Mrs Death, ironically, reminds him that, despite all of the world’s fallen heroes and ongoing crises, there is still such beauty to be found in life.
All the warmth and all the joy is boiled in a soup of memory, we stir the good stuff from the bottom of the pot and hold the ladle up, drink, we say, look at all the good chunks of goodness, take in your share of good times, good music, good books, good food, good laughter, good people, be grateful for the good stuff, life and death, we say, drink.

There were a few spots where I thought the content repetitive and wondered if the miscellany format distracted from the narrative, but overall the book more than lives up to its fantastic cover, title, and premise. And with the pandemic’s global death toll rising daily, it could hardly be more relevant.

Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read: this is the first entry on my Best of 2021 shelf.

Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for Marianne.
3,320 reviews127 followers
December 26, 2021
Mrs Death Misses Death is the first novel by British poet and author, Salena Godden. Young poet Wolf Willeford‘s first encounter with Death was when he was just nine, their block of flats burned down and Death took his mum. Ten years later, on a hung-over walk home from a party on Christmas Eve, he spots a desk in a junk shop about to close down. He immediately knows he has to have it.

And then he feels a cool presence nearby. Soon: “I am walking with Mrs Death and she shows me a London of layered worlds, the many worlds of before, and I hear the cries of far away and long ago. It is all here; I am both in the present and in the past. Mrs Death is vivid and by my side, narrating my world.”

Death, it turns out, is not the hooded male figure with scythe, but an old, homeless black woman who frequents train stations and other places of arrival and departure, places of transit.

The desk, when he has it in his attic room above the Forest Tavern in East London, turns out to be Mrs Death’s own, and it shares her many tales with him, the circumstances of some, the reader may recognise. Amongst other tales, there’s an interesting take on the story of a certain notorious nineteenth-century serial killer.

“Oh, I have been travelling. I time travel. I am a death tourist. I am witness. I am permitted. I can see every end, I go everywhere that Mrs Death goes and the places only Mrs Death can go when I am here and when I listen to The Desk.”

Godden utilises multiple formats: straight narratives from the perspective of Mrs Death, Wolf and The Desk, transcripts of interviews and counselling sessions with Mrs Death, poetry and free verse, flashbacks into Wolf’s unloved years with a cruel grandfather and a careless grandmother. It is filled with observations on human behaviour, philosophy, and anecdotes about death.

The title is, of course, quirky; the premise is imaginative; and it all starts off witty and dark and quite clever. While Godden’s writing is often beautiful, if repetitive, the whole soon degenerates into a sort of stream of consciousness rant/lament about the state of the world.

By the time Wolf reveals “But what if this passion and fury and all this writing were always just the ramblings of an imbalanced mind? What if everything I ever wrote and created was just my mania talking? What is real and what are just feelings? And which are real feelings or just hormones or chemicals in your body?” readers might well be skimming…

Rather than a novel, this seems to be a showcase for the author’s writing skills, lots of poetic but somewhat disjointed prose and occasional bits of wordplay, but what passes for a plot peters out and lacks resolution. Disappointing.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Canongate
Profile Image for Soula Kosti.
225 reviews60 followers
February 16, 2022
3.5 ✨

"Once you have known Mrs Death there's no unknowing her."

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden was not what I expected.

First of, what an intriguing book title! When I first read it, I thought the book would be about the couple of death, but I was way off.

Salena Godden describes Mrs Death as a "poor old black woman" because Death is invisible and there's no one in the human world more invisible than her and "only she who is invisible can do the work of death." As the story progresses, we see that a writer named Wolf narrates this story as he has purchased an old desk that once belonged to Mrs Death and through the Desk, Mrs Death communicates with Wolf and shares her stories and encounters with the humans.

So as it might seem obvious, I was expecting fantasy but don't let the premise fool you, this book is full of surprises, twists, and turns. It is also an interesting combination of fiction and poetry.

Wolf's writing is often a bit repetitive and it feels like the author gets so fascinated and hooked by a certain idea that he needs to explore it to the fullest. There are many quotable parts in the book overall and Wolf shares a lot of thought-provoking ideas like when he explains to us how our society often refers to higher powers as male, but that Death is certainly female.

"Surely only she who bears it, she who gave you life, can be she who has the power to take it."

Mrs Death Misses Death covers themes of climate change, police brutality, mental illness, family abuse, ancestral appreciation, race, and so much more. And of course since it's a book about death, it has some graphic details about murders and abuse. I believe the book did a great job overall in handling the concept of loss and grief as I often found solace in the author's words.

“You have a mourning that sits inside you. It's like having a stone in your centre; time smooths the edges like a pebble in a river, but it's always there — a stone is a stone. If you've known loss, you'll know this stone, you will carry a stone of your own — this pain and weight — and you'll know what I mean. It is a tattoo under the inside of you that cannot fade or be removed. There is no unknowing the memory that a certain date and time triggers: the smell of the season, the time, the weather. We replay it, the jolt, the shock, the finality of death.”

People are flawed and often hurt each other, either purposefully or without meaning to, but at the end of the day:

"We have each other: it is all we have.

It is enough and it is everything.

It is borrowed time."
Profile Image for Michelle.
1,205 reviews118 followers
October 18, 2020
This is a moving and thought-provoking story about Mrs Death. She has spent eternity doing her job and she is fed up and now wants to find someone and unburden herself what with all the things she has done. So, she meets a young writer called Wolf. Who has some experience in death as she nearly died in a fire and half her family is dead? Mrs Death shows Wolf everything about death and what could have been done differently and how people lived years ago and about life. How to live life to the fullest. The story is not written in a normal sense. This story is part narrative, part poetry.
Thank you NetGalley and Canongate for a copy of Mrs Death misses death by Salena Godden. When I requested this, I was expecting something completely different to what I just read in a good way.
This is an unusual, but beautifully written story about death but also life. It is fast paced and an easy read. I couldn’t put this down. This is one of them books that will leave you with unanswered questions that will stay in your mind for a long time. It also a great start for a debut novel. 4 stars from me.
Profile Image for Olivia Petrini.
11 reviews1 follower
February 15, 2022
WHAT a load of RUBBISH.

I am seldom so enraged by a book that I feel the need to write a scathing review, but this book has done it. In one fell swoop, it has achieved the coveted status as being one of the worst pieces of writing I have ever had the misfortune of reading. Honestly, it felt like it was written by a disturbed group of Year 8 drama students trying to impress their classmates by making relentless reference to death and how miserable and gloomy it is.

I was drawn in by this book with its praising reviews and synopsis (and admittedly the pretty cover design). I thought to myself; 'looks pretty interesting, could be fun' - and BOY, was I wrong. Godden is needlessly pretentious, her style is incoherent at the best of times and otherwise lacklustre and brain-numbingly bland. The very little substance the narrative has is wrung dry by the over-worked 'experimental' sections of the book where the style looks more like poetry and even less like something worth reading. What a waste of time oh my goodness. Made me realise life was short and that I shouldn't be wasting it trying to trudge through this nonsensical tripe. It's as though Godden has chimed the Gong of Genuine Meaning, realised that the mystery of death strikes a chord with humanity and proceeded to hammer the same dull note over and over again until all meaning is lost.

It's not that deep love, I'm sorry.

Or it was the first time, in the Book Thief, but this Death as a narrator is far less impressive. In a desperate scramble to make her set of characters modern and unrepresented, the narrative itself is distracted and dimensionless; a little too much twenty-first-century tick-boxing going on for my liking. I gave it a good go, I really did, but there's only so much melodramatic phrasing and edgy-and-deep wordplay I can take (see "tore and slit him open/ smashed his bones / kicked his head / they caved it in / then threw him in pieces down upon the bloodied rocks") what is this book trying to be? I want to sit it down over a cup of tea and let it explain its angst to me. The Jack the Ripper section was also a real low point, and another bid to put an edgy spin on something that should really be left alone, Mary Jackson, the unsuspecting female serial killer who disguises herself as a man?? I don't think so...

I wish this book wasn't trying to be so clever, it only worsens the blow when you find out it really isn't. It felt hollow and distracted the whole way through - dancing limply at the peripheries of any actual message or depth.

Mrs Death Misses Death? Give it a miss!
Profile Image for Jherane Patmore.
200 reviews73 followers
January 25, 2021
The most mystical, brilliant, and otherworldly book about death I've read since... high school? Wow, this book speaks about blood memory, time, death and of course life in ways I haven't experienced before. I'll keep saying it, poets who crossover to novels don't play fair!

I made so many notes in my Kindle about this book and now I'm struggling to put into words how much it means to me. I'm also scared to read the bad reviews so I'm going to get off this goodreads and save this book for when I can read it in book club or with my friends, because they have excellent taste.
Profile Image for Ashley.
2,598 reviews1,663 followers
February 1, 2023
Oof, this was not for me. Like, so not for me that I maybe shouldn’t even be writing a review, because my brain just bounced off this after about ten pages and then just kept bouncing harder and harder.

This is a speculative fiction, experimental novel by British poet Salena Godden about an anthropomorphized version of Death (here called Mrs. Death, personified by an older Black woman) and her connections to/conversations with a person called Wolf. In addition to the the prose actually feeling like poetry in disguise, there are actual poems inserted throughout.

So please, for the love of god if you do not like poetry, do not be sucked in by that beautiful cover and tantalizing premise like I was. This book is basically a novel in verse, and it is much more interested in exploring concepts and playing around with imagery than it is in having a cohesive plot or character arcs.

I mean, obviously YMMV and there will always be outliers, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that if you only read poetry irregularly and often find yourself being impatient with it when you do, and it’s mostly an exercise in frustration for you like it is for me, then you will probably feel pretty similarly to me regarding this book. I am upset about it, though, because the premise sounded so good, and the cover was so pretty.

[2.5 stars, rounded down]
October 4, 2021
Mrs Death is exhausted. So much tragedy, so much … well, death. Seeking to unload her conscience, Mrs Death shares her stories with young writer Wolf Willeford, who commits them to paper and begins her memoirs.

Prose and poetry combine in short chapters to share both fictional and real tragic deaths across history and include letters, psychiatry transcripts, and diary entries to expose the horrors of life and death.

Mrs Death Misses Death is an unusual story brilliantly executed in my opinion with brutal imagery and clever wordplay as well as thought-provoking gender reversal (What if Death were actually a woman, in fact, a Black working class woman?) and commentary on current events.
Truthfully, this book is an experience and I highly recommend giving it a try though I’m aware it certainly won’t be for everyone.

For more reviews, visit www.rootsandreads.wordpress.com
Profile Image for Lesley.
120 reviews14 followers
May 19, 2021
What a bold, beautiful, heartfelt hymn to life and love and humanity - as viewed by Death herself.

There’s no plot as such to recap; it’s really just two streams of consciousness gradually intertwining - 20-something writer Wolf, living in solitary poverty in London and haunted by traumatic memories, and the immortal Mrs Death. The subject and approach reminded me of Neil Gaiman. His Death, in The Sandman graphic novels, was a cute goth girl; here her bodily form is an elderly Black woman, forever invisible and overlooked. Mrs Death, like Gaiman’s Endless, is as old as time if not older, and just as women give birth, death is also a woman’s job, quite logically.

Unlike Neil Gaiman, Salena Godden has both imagination and style. Her writing is more like Ali Smith’s - rhythmic, fast flowing, word-playing, form-breaking - and with the same social concerns, and being unashamed to speak up for love. Love of [gestures broadly] all this - life, humanity, the planet - which also means grief, loss and living with Mrs Death going about her business.

I have inadvertently found myself reading novels written by poets recently, and this is another one for that shelf. I heard Salena Godden read bits from this book before I started it, so I heard her rather nice smoky tones while I was reading (she also reads the audio book version, which for those who do audio would be worth getting.). She started as a punk performance poet, where energy, word-sounds, rhythm and flow are everything, and this saturates her prose, giving it a really distinctive voice and beat. The narrative chapters are interspersed with Mrs Death’s songs and poems; some chapters are rendered as screenplay/script; some are staccato blank verse; some sketches; the short chapters and cut-up style and back and forth in time, between all kinds of reality gives it great momentum, despite the lack of plot, and keeps the reader on their toes.

It’s a debut novel and it feels like one, which is not disparaging, just that it’s so full of passion and questions. Along with all the existential life / death / time / love stuff, there’s a lot of social commentary, a lot of anger and grief about the human world and the planet we’re destroying, about poverty, oppression, injustice, and why why why. So it sometimes feels didactic and obvious, but then if you were Death and had been around forever, and saw how we are now, you’d probably have strong views on the matter as well. The real-life atrocities and true crime stuff jarred a bit for me, but that’s a personal taste thing probably. I liked this novel for its passionate intent, and wit, and invention, and I like Salena Godden for wearing her heart on her sleeve and not being afraid to speak up for Love, which is what this book is about, really.
Profile Image for Justin Chen.
379 reviews327 followers
May 15, 2021
4.5 stars

Part surrealist fairy tale, part documentary, and part philosophical musing on life and death, Mrs Death Misses Death is a dizzying, gut-punching literary trip unbound by traditional story structure.

Salena Godden's root in poetry is clearly evident, the rhythmic wring and clever wordplay (the book title is just a tease) are present throughout the book's entirety, and the reading experience comes across as lyrical, frank, and never self-indulgent. It is difficult summarizing Mrs Death Misses Death because of its intentional fragmentation: it's both darkly fantastical and brutally real. Told primarily through the character Wolf (who is biracial, nonbinary and possibly bipolar), the story utilizes the character's past and present as a platform, exploring gender/race reversal (what if Death is an old Black female? What if Jack the Ripper was a woman?), discrimination, mental health and openly commenting on current state of the world (refugee crisis in Europe, police brutality, COVID-19, and more).

While the constant recalling of weighty topical news strengthen many emotional moments (such as alluding to the Grenfell Tower fire as part of Wolf's family tragedy), there are a couple observational writings that feel tonally different (from the author's voice rather than any of the story characters), and come across as late additions inserted into an already finished product. Perhaps these would've been better appreciated outside the boundary of this book.

Mrs Death Misses Death is like nothing I've read recently, it's unapologetically visceral, and while it's not an escapism literature, it also manages to be not a complete downer; it challenges our perception of death (of all kinds), and voicing our collective frustration at the world's inequality. Go in with caution and expect it to linger.
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