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Orbit, 16th April 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.
This is a beautiful, haunting and rewarding book. It is also in some ways a provoking book (which to me is a good thing!) - and I think it may divide North's readers.
In concept, The End of the Day continues her recent series each of which takes a particular (fantastical) attribute and runs it for all it is worth - so Harry August is endlessly reborn as the same person, Hope Arden is forgotten as soon as you look away from her, the nameless narrator of Touch can occupy others' bodies. Each of those is a very smart, well written exploration of what those abilities - or curses - might mean.
This book superficially takes the same approach but is really rather different in two ways.
First, in The End of the Day, Charlie has no special talent, but he has a very special job. The Harbinger of Death, he goes before the Pale Rider (if that's how you perceive Death: other Deaths are available) as either a warning (to those who might, for a time, evade their fate) or a courtesy (to those who can't).
Death comes for ideas as well as people, and Charlie always brings a gift.
The Death Charlie serves is a rather shifty character (even Death's gender varies with the observer). But Charlie himself is a real, breathing, human being, with a pension plan, health insurance and a back office ('Milton Keynes') who look after his schedule and pay his expenses (they're a bit on the stingy side). He was interviewed for the role, and his predecessor is still around to answer the odd question or give advice. So the central character here is unlike those earlier, gifted/ cursed protagonists - although you might think that his most unusual job could be seen as either a gift or a curse.
The second difference is that the earlier books had a considerable amount of thrillery plot, as Harry, Hope and... whoever... struggled with malign organisations, or with other, similarly gifted individuals and sought to propser or simply survive, making use of their talents or overcoming their limitations.
The End of the Day has much less of this, indeed almost nothing - while there are some attempts to manipulate Charlie and through him, his boss (what couldn't the modern state do were it to get Death on side?) these are much more things that happen to him that events in which he takes part. Beyond doing his job Charlie doesn't plan much or drive the story, rather his role is essentially as witness: to disasters such as the melting of the icecaps (one mission takes him to Greenland, 'out on the ice') or war in Syria and Iraq as well as to more intimately human tragedies or triumphs (an episode in Nigeria). So we get many, many little stories - a young woman and her grandfather evicted from their London flat to make way for property developers; a warlord in Belarus who's not ready to die; two women in Africa who love each other so much despite persecution; and so on. Charlie visits all these and many, many more and North winds the story back and forth, sometimes telling us what happened afterwards (or before), sometimes not.
There's a fairytale aspect to much of it, heightened by the way she introduces many chapters or episodes:
On the shores of the sea...
...in a land where all things grow...
In the land of sun...
...in a land of oil...
...on the edge of a lagoon where the city grows...
And also by the way the central conceit is taken seriously by all. From black-ops technicians in secret locations to border guards and police, nobody questions that Charlie is the Harbinger of Death, though many wonder that that means.
It may be like a fairytale, but that's not to say that the writing isn't pin-sharp, realistic and - in many places - unremitting as it faces some of the truly horrible ways people die: the description of bodies flung into a pit after a massacre will haunt me for a long time. This is not escapist writing, it reflects some truly grim events and feels very contemporary. As such it's fitting that we also get glimpses of the other Harbingers - of War, Pestilence and Famine - and their principals as they go about their work whether in refugee camps, Pentagon boardrooms, Whitehall clubs, UN forums or secure laboratories. We don't always know what they're about: possibly it's better that way.
We also hear snatches of conversation gathered from the air, as it were. It seems that Charlie somehow listens in on these wherever he goes: if he has a special talent, that's it. But they don't enable him to take any particular action, nor does he appear to want to - he just wants to do his job, and sometimes, the voices soothe (through the book Charlie's role takes more and more of a toll on him - witnesses are not always disinterested observers). So they're like a running commentary, sometimes germane to the story, sometimes apparently not. There's a theme of a ticking clock - perhaps time is running out, somehow? - and an alternating chatter: rat rat rat human human rat rat as the innocent are maimed and killed and treated as things. Only Charlie, it seems, wants to hold onto the idea that people - however degraded and wicked - remain people, as he maintains when visiting a seemingly gracious but deeply racist KKK leader.
It is in many ways a dark picture of humanity and a dark picture of our world, often showing people at their worst. And all these vignettes, while they build into a powerful impression of terror, of seething destruction and accelerating loss and change, aren't redeemed by being made incidental to a hopeful plot, to Charlie's success in getting one over the forces of disintegration.
It is, then, a challenging book, one with a great deal of incident but not too bothered by plot and marked by a great deal of darkness.
There is some hope. The most positive thing in Charlie's life, as he witnesses loss, torture and disintegration is his relationship with Emmi, conducted when he's briefly at home between trips. This is described tenderly and North shows how it becomes increasingly important to him as other certainties flee and even Death - who he thought he could rely on - lets him down.
I enjoyed this book IMMENSELY. North manages both to build on her recent successes and to create something really new and different. While it might not be quite what everyone was expecting, I'm so glad this isn't only a book about someone with special abilities, but so much more.