A London novel with a difference by Salena Godden

Performing poet Salena begins her first novel with a series of Disclaimers.

The Disclaimers include the following:

This book cannot see the future…This work contains violent deaths: this book cannot change the ending or your ending or its own ending. This book does not know how to switch on the light at the end of the tunnel. This book cannot contact the other side…This book is not a self-help brochure… At the time of writing this book mourns for Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Toni Morrison and Aretha Franklin…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.

While emphasising that humans still have so much to learn, Mrs Death Misses Death is relevant to 2021, the second year of the plague we call Covid-19. It’s a bold book that has a lot to say about the way we live and have lived. And yes, Mrs Death Misses Death is as challenging and compassionate as the gigs I’ve seen Salena do at Book Slam. But not as funny.

Her home territory is East London – Spitalfields, Forest Gate, Whitechapel – and it was while she was walking through Whitechapel that she first heard the voice of her narrator.

In this novel, Death is an old black woman that nobody ever sees. She tells her story to an aspiring young writer, Wolf Willeford, a damaged black kid who lost his mum in a tower block fire and was brought up by his negligent grandparents. An aspiring poet, young Wolfie writes down what his new companion remembers, what she now believes, and what she says, as the pair of them amble around modern London late at night.

For example: They walk and talk until almost dawn, near Limehouse: Mrs Death Walks with me there. She tells me the river is one of her oldest friends. She says the Thames is filled with ghosts and old spirits. The floor of the River Thames is littered with engagement rings and the bones of dead babies.

Obviously, Mrs Death has been a very busy woman for many centuries, working across five continents and vast oceans. In our obscene 21st century she’s in the dusty hot rubble of Syria but on the same day she’s also at a mass shooting in the USA, where she collects the souls of dead teenagers.

One device used to tell the story really resonated with me. Mrs Death sees an ancient desk in a tiny antique shop near Commercial Road, and that becomes a theme: the ancient desk calls to her, demands attention:

“It is a desk made of magic, of potential, and it is singing to me.” She is convinced: If I own that desk, I’ll finally write…something wonderful…

The way we live today brings new horrors for Mrs Death to endure: Do you know how many people die because of selfies? People are dying taking photos of their own faces and falling off the Great Wall of China or tripping over into the Grand Canyon.

As I journeyed deeper into this novel a strange thing started happening. I kept hearing a song.

Yes, I read books and listen to music every day. But when I’m reading Elmore Leonard I never hear Miles, when I’m reading DBC Pierre or George Orwell, I don’t hear Stevie Wonder or Van or Marvin.

I never hear a song when reading a book. Never ever.

But somehow, reading this book, I kept hearing early Stones. Not the drama of Gimme Shelter or Street Fighting Man but the history of Sympathy For The Devil, just the congas, the piano, and Mick introducing himself as a man of wealth and taste:

I was ’round when Jesus Christ/ Had his moment of doubt and pain/ Made damn sure that Pilate/ Washed his hands and sealed his fate/ I stuck around St. Petersburg/ When I saw it was a time for a change/ Killed the Tsar and his ministers/ Anastasia screamed in vain/ I rode a tank/ Held a general’s rank/ When the blitzkrieg raged/ And the bodies stank.

That seemed very odd to me. Maybe it was the time-travel.