I’ve fallen for every one of Claire North’s novels. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope have between them broken my heart and expanded my mind. They’ve thrilled me and they’ve chilled me. By way of them I’ve been exposed to new places, new ideas—new ways of being, even. But if I had to level a single criticism against her thoughtful body of work, it would have to be directed at its measure, because whilst her texts have tackled a great many meaningful themes, not least the array of ways we determine identity, I’ve found North’s literary positions a little non-committal.
That’s not the case in The End of the Day. This is a book with something to say; something important, if I may. It’s slow to start, and oddly episodic even when the plot has picked up; its characters come and go with next to no notice; it’s difficult, and confusing, and contradictory—but that’s what life is like, right? And the messy, maddening, magical gift of life we’ve all been given, that’s what The End of the Day deals in: not death… although its principal perspective is on her payroll.
Like North’s other novels, The End of the Day is a high concept travelogue of sorts, but this fiction’s frequent flier is Charlie, and Charlie just got hired! He’s to be the Harbinger of the foremost of the apocryphal horsemen, of which singular position Death gives this description:
The Harbinger is a mortal, a bridge between this world and the next. In the old days I used eagles, but people stopped paying attention to them after a while—just birds in he sky—[so] I switched to humans a few thousand years ago. One must move with the times.
North doesn’t waste any time reinventing the wheel here. Death appears in any number of forms over the course of the story. Sometimes he’s male and sometimes she isn’t; from time to time she has a scythe; here and there, horns protrude from his lumpen skull. “In all other respects he was the figure she had known would come, the god of the underworld, exactly as the stories said he would be.”
Charlie, on the other hand, is just a puny human. An awkward sort with precious few friends or family ties, he took this odd job primarily because he believed the travel required would broaden his horizons and help him meet new people. And it definitely does that. But it’s also difficult work, and desperately dangerous. Death may just be a phone call away, but Charlie really doesn’t want to be a bother, so he’s arrested repeatedly and beaten frequently. On any number of occasions he nearly perishes himself, and inevitably, these experiences lead him to ask that age-old question:
What is Death? It’s the oldest question; maybe the very first question ever asked. The dead can’t tell us, the dying don’t have the language to explain. The only guaranteed part of our lives is the one thing we cannot express, control or command. It comes and are we are… so afraid. Too afraid to look. Too afraid to understand. We think we know, we think we prepare, but we don’t. Like a man tied to the train tracks, we see death coming, all our lives we see it coming, and we cannot name that light, but know exactly what it is. To see life, to honour life, you must know that one day it will end, that it has ended, that it will begin again, that all things change, that change is death. These words, too big, too big to understand, too big, too frightening, and so we ask…
Asking is all North has done in her novels till now—and there’s value in that: in open-ended questioning. But here, at last, in The End of the Day, she ventures an answer. And the answer, at least initially, is simpler than you’d think. What, then, is death? Why, it’s life! “Life, yes, as I said. When you are Harbinger of Death, you go before, and before there is death, there is life. You go to greet and honour the living. It would be ridiculous, obscene even, if you didn’t.”
But life, human life, is, as Charlie learns—maybe a little too late—not the precious prize he once believed it to be. In going before, in dutifully delivering gifts of significance to those on their last legs, he is ultimately exposed to such horror and hatred that he becomes haunted by his own humanity. Where once he saw beauty and truth and football and music, “now I look and all I hear is the beating of the drums and all I see is a world in which to not be one of us is to be something else. The scientist was right, reason is dead; the dream is dead; humanity has changed into something new and it is brutal. It is ugly. Life is ugly. And it is obscene. And I look. And all I see is you.”
It’s characteristically contemplative, yes, and at points disarmingly disjointed, but without giving too much away, The End of the Day is a brilliantly original and abusively amusing book that’ll make you angry at humanity at the same time as reminding readers such as we why life is worth living. Equal parts protest novel and speculative testament, it charts a new path for Claire North as a novelist—and though there may be bumps in the road less travelled she’s intent on taking, I can’t wait to see where it, in turn, takes us.
The End of the Day is available from Orbit Books.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.