Charlie counts himself lucky, in a way. Graduating in a recession is never easy and he’s been fortunate to find a job that offers a good pension and a chance to use his languages. He’s always been a people person and now he gets to travel the world, meeting all sorts of interesting characters. Generally speaking, his boss doesn’t interfere with his work, and the central office in Milton Keynes takes care of insurance, expenses and any niggling little accidents that need strings to be pulled. And Charlie’s job title always attracts people’s attention at parties. How many people can say they’re the Harbinger of Death?
I haven’t read Claire North’s book The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, but it’s come up on my recommendations several times and, as far as I can tell, sounds very much like Life after Life (I invite those who’ve read it to come and set me straight). But this new novel sounded like the kind of thing I might enjoy: a quirky British novel about just getting on and doing one’s job in occasionally difficult circumstances. There are hints of Good Omens, of course, but perhaps only because the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse pop up now and then, and there’s something inherently humorous about the fact that Death’s HQ is in Milton Keynes. And the Harbinger of Death comes from Birmingham. But hey! Why not?
Charlie is never quite sure where work will send him next. An appointment pops up in his phone, which might send him off to India, to Lagos, to the glaciers of the Arctic Circle or to the humid forests of South America. And he’s never quite sure why he’s going. His role is to go before Death, sometimes as a courtesy – to honour someone or something which will soon pass away forever – and sometimes as a warning, hinting that the future might yet be averted. Charlie is always instructed to take a gift: something of meaning for the recipient, which might remind them of happy days, offer them an alternative road to take, or comfort them in their final hours. And he often stays to talk, to hear the memories of those he visits and, sometimes, to share his own rather less exotic experiences. As he often has to explain, the people are still alive when he leaves. He isn’t the final curtain. His arrival just hints that it’ll be falling soon.
Obviously Charlie’s life is a bit unusual, but he doesn’t really have close friends and he’s always been happy enough in his little flat in Dulwich. But when he meets the vibrant Emmi, he begins to build a life of his own – alongside the lives he lives vicariously on his travels – and, like anyone with a demanding career, he has to start thinking about work-life balance and how to learn to leave work behind. Only that’s not easy. Because Charlie is, at heart, the sort of person who cares and, as he spends longer in his role, he begins to find that compassion can sometimes carry him into some rather dark places.
I liked the idea of this novel, and I was interested by North’s decision that Death should send Charlie not only to honour people, but also to honour the imminent passing of ideas. Those ideas could be morally good or bad – the creation of a Palestinian-Israeli orchestra in the Gaza Strip; the world of debutantes and old fashioned values in the American South; the death of an obscure language with its final speaker. But I found that at times North came dangerously close to social-message fiction, as in her choice to send Charlie to honour the final inhabitants of a South London estate on the brink of being demolished by an unprincipled developer; or his trip to the melting glaciers in Greenland. While I do feel there’s a place for authors to deal with such issues in their work, there are times when (despite its earnestness) the book feels uncomfortably glib.
And the same goes for its character. Is this a humorous work or not? The book can’t quite make up its mind whether it wants to be ironic – Charlie hanging out with the Harbingers for the other three Horsemen in the odd war zone, having a catch up while the world burns – or profoundly serious. Perhaps if it were set at some point in the past, it would matter less, and maybe it’s just me being unnecessarily sensitive, but I found it uncomfortable to have light-hearted absurdity woven in with tales of atrocities that are still happening – in Mosul, in Syria and so forth. I think authors have to be very careful in dealing with such things, so that it doesn’t look as if they’re exploiting events to make their book look edgy or relevant or on-point. Charlie parachutes into situations, gains insights from talking to generically wise foreigners, and leaves again. It feels a bit like disaster tourism, or the stereotypical white boy slumming it in some needy corner of the world during his gap year, to prove his social conscience.
I’m being a bit hard, yes. And the book’s ultimate message is one that all of us should welcome at such times as these: that humanity is universal and that everyone deserves dignity. But maybe there would have been a way to do that without appropriating ongoing humanitarian crises for fictional impact. I am not saying that you shouldn’t read it. On the contrary, I think you should because then you can come and list the ways in which I’ve missed the point. And there are, of course, redeeming features. Charlie is a perfectly personable young man, eager to do well. North uses short chapters full of babble to evoke the world of opinions within which we live, which perhaps cloud our ability to see the things which are really important. But I think there are moments when the concept becomes more important than the plot, and certain sections run just a little too close to the knuckle for this reader’s comfort.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review