The End of the Day - Claire North *****
Mixing old world ideas and mythology with the modern day is an old trick in science-fiction and fantasy. Admittedly it's more often the preserve of humour fantasy of the likes of Terry Pratchett or Tom Holt, but Neil Gaiman has shown that it can be used to unravel ideas and concepts we have of reality. Claire North's concept for The End of the Day sounds like it has a basis in the comic, and it does have some wonderfully surreal touches to it, but the subject it deals with is actually deadly serious. With the emphasis on the deadly.
The novel features Charlie, a young man from Birmingham who has recently applied for a job opportunity and, having impressed the panel in his interview, he has been successfully appointed into the position of the Harbinger of Death. What better opportunity could there be to meet people and see the world? Given instructions from the head office in Milton Keynes, Charlie's job is to travel to appointments with people who are soon to be visited by Death and present them with a small token or gift.
Being the Harbinger of Death where you are unlikely to be welcomed by most people is not however as gloomy a job as you might think, and it doesn't necessarily result in the death of the person Charlie has been assigned to meet. As Charlie frequently assures his startled but surprisingly open-minded clients, sometimes he is sent as a warning, sometimes as a courtesy. He's there to honour life, and sometimes the death that is to come is not that of a person, but the death of an idea, the death of a way of life or it could even be the death of a world.
Charlie's work as the Harbinger of Death therefore takes many forms and takes him to many places, so it's far from a routine job. Some are places where you might expect Death to have a full appointment book - Mosul, Syria, Lagos, America - but he also travels to Greenland to meet a scientist working on the vanishing iceflows and to a South London housing estate where an elderly man and his daughter are the only tenants resisting a new housing development venture.
Charlie rarely sees his employer, but he does occasionally run into other associates, as War, Famine and Pestilence are finding that business is booming these days. They tend to travel in first class on jet planes these days rather than via the traditional method of horseback, but you have to keep up with the times. Keeping up with the times however means that other old ways are dying out. Sometimes that's the notion of debutante's balls or the ideology of the Ku Klux Klan, but sometimes it's also the death of an ideal, where there are fewer who are prepared to stand up for freedom, equality and justice.
You probably get the point of The End of the Day fairly quickly and it might seem like it gets a little repetitive as it continues to make similar points, but while it certainly gets very dark indeed and increasingly weighed down by the endless trail of death and misery that Charlie encounters in his travels, the points that are made are relevant and not laboured. There's a lot to cover here, and Claire North surprisingly manages to touch on a lot of the contemporary issues that preoccupy us in the world today, as well as issues that have preoccupied mankind from the very first time they were able to articulate thoughts and ideas. Like, what is Death anyway?
Evidently answers to such questions are hard to come by, but Claire North ambitiously covers many schools of thought in all those encounters and in the fragments of overheard conversations that slip in between chapters. There are glimpses too of goodness and kindness and moments which make Charlie feel his work is worthwhile. When you see what he sees, there would have to be some job satisfaction or reward that I'm sure is scarcely covered in the terms of his pay and conditions. Life is indeed celebrated, acknowledged and honoured, and it's Death, bringing change with it, that often gives it all meaning. We seem to be living in very meaningful times at the moment...
The End of the Day by Claire North is published by Orbit on 6th April 2017
The End of the Day - Claire North *****