Let’s face it – Death does not have the best reputation around.
It is seen, at least in much of Western secular thought, as the end of things, the loss of everything we know and love and hold dear, a terrifying journey into a dark unknown from which there is no return.
Not everyone sees it that way, of course with many religions and non-Western forms of thought advancing the idea that death is less the end of things than another stage of life, a transition to a state of being that transcends anything we known while we’re alive.
Wherever you land on that particular belief curve, Claire North’s At the End of the Day is an interesting excursion into what Death, and the capital D is deliberate since we are talking the Being themselves and not simply the cessation of life, represents and whether there is far more than the grim finality that many of us dread and recoil from.
In North’s unstintingly poetic hands, this beautiful, ruminative book ponders the nature of humanity, and way the endless push-and-pull of time and the many changes it inevitably generates affect our lives, and in the end, our deaths.
Not always, as you soon realise, for the better.
In fact, in chapters that act as literary connective issue for their most narrative-based counterparts – it has to be noted at this point that the book does not follow a conventional narrative path, being more of a series of interconnected episodes centred on Charlie, Death’s Harbinger aka Executive Assistant and his worldwide travels in advance of his boss’s arrival – we are given what first appear as series of disconnected utterances by myriad people on an eclectic range of topics.
But as the book goes on in its lilting, deeply thoughtful and insightful way, you begin to understand that these are snippets of conversations between Charlie and the people he visits, some of whom are close to death, others of whom are simply representative of a particular way of life or a language group or style of thought.
The lesson through this original and quirky though never less than utterly immersive novel, is that Death comes not simply to usher people through to the Other Side – whatever that is; at no point is this ever firmly established with death only ever referred to in the most oblique of terms – but to honour particular moments in human experience and civilisation.
In that respect, Death is given possibly one of the PR jobs of his/her/their immortal existence, being painted as a kind, benevolent being, who appears to each person through their own filter, and who stands in stark contrast to their fellow Riders of the Apocalypse, War, Pestilence and Famine who extract altogether too much enjoyment from their respective domains.
Death goes to great trouble to honour those whom he or she is ushering from life, even going so far as to travel as they would travel, live as they live as a way of communicating to them that they matter and their lives matter.
It’s touching and beautiful, and you can well understand why many people greet Death at the end of their lives, not as a thief and spectre but as a friend, a confidant who has come to give them a priceless gift.
Death’s beneficence extends to Charlie who, through the course of the book has to juggle kidnapping, death threats and the emotional toll of being with many people as death nears – many of these experiences are profoundly moving and enriching but nonetheless take their toll on the young Englishman who is very much mortal (everyone assumes he isn’t) – with a life back home including a budding relationship with Emmi, who comes to embrace her boyfriend’s very odd occupation even as she has legitimate concerns about its effect on him.
At the End of the Day is a supreme joy, a quietly powerful book written by a superlative writer with real insight, poetry and a quiet celebration of the human spirit and willingness to portray the best and worst of humanity (humanhumanratrat is a constant refrain) that never rises to any great narrative crescendo but nevertheless is endlessly, brilliantly engaging from start to finish.
Rather than being diminished by its less than conventional narrative structure, the novel is actually all the richer for it, its small and sometimes extended tales encompassing a rich cross section of the human experience that never fail to move, educate or set you thinking.
Taking the position that death is not a negative but rather an affirmation of life, a rejoinder to pursue life in all its myriad forms with vigour and passion, truth and honesty, At the End of the Day is a meditative evocation of the many permutations of humanity, and that the way to cheat death is not to bargain and cajole and brutally coerce but to live your very best life (Oprah will be pleased!) and to go boldly into its end with head held high, heart singing and embracing what you have been and where you will go.
And to the living such as Charlie who rises and falls and rises again in the course of his most gratifying and yet emotionally exhausting of jobs, the book is a poignant reminder that we should grab hold of life and celebrate it at every turn, taking chances, opening our hearts and never being less than entirely open to what it may bring you.
These may sound like the product of Hallmark cards run amok but the reality is that At the End of the Day is heartfelt, grim, real, joyful and whimsically substantial, written by a powerhouse voice who conveys with grace, passion and quiet observation both the horror and joy of life and the inextricable link between life and death and the many points inbetween that define us as people, no matter who or where we may be.