Wednesday 27 June 2012

Five From the Archive (no.4)

Didn't we all get excited over the past couple of days?  Mum and I have very much enjoyed the debates we've been having - your comments have been hilarious.  Some of you I'll never look at in quite the same light again.

Anyway, on with the show - and another trip down memory lane for Five From The Archive.  This week...

Five... Books About Death

A quick note.  I am definitely not intending to be glib about death or grief - but I think it is fascinating to see the many and varied ways in which death is treated in fiction and non-fiction.  Obviously 'death' is a huge topic, but it's thought-provoking to see how it has influenced such different books - some treating death with reverence and mourning; some as a matter of historical interest; some as merely a plot point.

I had the delight of seeing Karen/Cornflower on Sunday, and she laughed nervously when I asked her whether or not she thought it would be a good idea... but I'm going to go ahead, trusting that you know I wouldn't intend to be flippant about grief.  Ok?  Ok.

1.) Death and the Maidens (2007) by Janet Todd

In short: Todd uses the suicide of little-known Fanny Wollstonecraft as the starting point for exploring the strange and fascinating, intertwining lives of the Shelleys, Wollstonecrafts, and Godwins.

From the review: "According to Hogg (and also quoted by Todd), Shelley was 'altogether incapable of rendering an account of any transaction whatsoever, according to the strict and precise truth, and the bare naked realities of actual life'. It is to Todd's great credit that the reverse is true for her - what could have become sensationalised or hand-wringing is, in fact, told with a caring honesty. Death and the Maidens does not fall into the other trap, which much literary biography does, of dryness and dullness - though the research is doubtless impeccable, Todd does not write this work in an overly-scholarly manner."

2.) In the Springtime of the Year (1974) by Susan Hill

In short: A young woman comes to terms with the sudden death of her husband.

From the review: "Some of my favourite writers are those who can weave an involving narrative without huge set pieces or plot turns. The biggest event having happened in the first few pages, this novel is more a study of grief than a rollercoaster of events. From the immediate aftermath; the funeral; Ruth's difficult relations with Ben's family; closer kinship with Ben's younger brother; dealing with Ben's possessions; moving onwards to the future without him - each stage is subtly and intimately shown - never too much introspection, and always writing of so high a standard that it doesn't feel like cliché."

3.) Let Not The Waves of the Sea (2011) by Simon Stephenson

In short: Easily the most moving book on this list.  Stephenson's brother was killed in the new year tsunami, and this beautiful book traces past and future - a biography, autobiography, travelogue, and even a philosophy.

From the review: "It is often said that first-time authors put everything into their book - with novels, this is meant is a criticism.  Every idea is thrown in, to the detriment of the structure and unity required of fiction.  With non-fiction, with Let Not The Waves of the Sea, putting everything in is what makes Stephenson's book so special. [...] This book is as full and varied and complex as the life it commemorates, and I consider it a privilege to have been able to read it."

4.) The Driver's Seat (1970) by Muriel Spark

In short: My third Spark, and the one which made me love her - we learn early on that eccentric tourist Lise has been killed, and this short novel traces the curious events leading up to her death.

From the review: "The novel [is] some sort of waiting game, the reader never being quite sure where they stand. Spark's prose is deliberately - and deliciously - disorientating. We move in and out of Lise's thoughts, never quite grasping hold of her perspective, nor yet letting it slip entirely out of reach."

5.) Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie

In short: You know the score with Agatha Christie... it's interesting how death has become emotionless for the reader in murder mysteries, isn't it?  All the usual red herrings and impossibilities in typical Christie fare.

From the review: "What I wasn't expecting, what I had somehow either forgotten or never noticed, was how funny Christie is. The problems the vicar and his wife have with their servant are written so amusingly, I laughed out loud a few times. She also has the drifting 'oh gosh how we simply shrieked' type down pat too."

This is probably the vastest topic yet in Five From the Archive, but which great books (fiction or non-fiction) would you recommend under the theme of death?   Over to you!  Hope you're enjoying this series - I'm really loving a trawl back through the archives - and it's fun to be thinking up sketches again.


  1. OK, dh and I are laughing out loud over the sketches!

  2. This is an intriguing subject and I love the variety of books you've chosen. But I am struggling to think of what I could recommend - what a vast topic!

    I don't think I have ever been as deeply affected by fictional deaths as I was by those in the books I read as a child. While others were crying over Charlotte's Web, I was devastated when I was nine by the death of Walter in L.M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside. I actually put the book down at that point and walked away, refusing to return to it for several years because I didn't want to face a world where so many of my favourite characters were grieving. As an adult, I'm slightly more rational but only slightly.

    Roger Rosenblatt's Making Toast, a memoir about his family's life after his adult daughter's unexpected death, is very moving without feeling exploitative and I would be remiss if I didn't mention Helen Rappaport's A Magnificent Obsession, about Prince Albert's death and Queen Victoria's years of mourning. In a funnier vein, there's Jonathan Tropper's The Is Where I Leave You, a comedy about a dysfunctional set of siblings gathered to mourn their father. But, though they don't count as a book on their own, I think some of the most beautiful writing I have read about death and grief are STW's letters to William Maxwell, first after Valentine's death and then in the months before her own. Read those broke my heart.

    And, even though I’ve rambled on for far too long, I can’t end without telling you how much I love the D.E.A.T.H. cartoon!

  3. The Magic Mountain for a start! I also think that David Lodge does quite a good job (in a much lighter vein) in Paradise News too. I totally recommend the unforgettable Norwegian Wood by Murakami; do consider reading that one if you haven't already

  4. I'm not sure how to decide that a book is 'about death.' I looked at my personal list of all-time favorites. Many of them end with a death but I'm not sure I'd say they are 'about death.' Perhaps "Memento Mori" by Muriel Spark would qualify. I love Hannah Green's "The Dead of the House" but it's more about the past of the narrator's family. John Berger's "To the Wedding" is about love and death, a novel that is both very sad and very joyful in addition to being beautifully written.

    Mary Grover

  5. My vote would be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I picked it up as part of an offer and wasn't sure if I'd like it, but ended up adoring it and raving about it and lending it to anyone who would read it. It's set in Nazi Germany and is narrated by death and is wonderfully written and moving - highly recommended.

  6. I really like the sketches Simon. What a brilliant way of sweetening a difficult topic. It is a theme that is certainly worth raising. After all, as the saying goes there are only two things certain in life, death and taxes. Although, after the fun and games earlier in the week, we should perhaps add "women will love a bad guy" to that list? (Insert appropriate smiley icon to stress last comment intended only as witty aside.)

    Getting back to more weighty matters, I would recommend Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler crime novels as excellent reading on the subject of death. I do so not just because they are murder mysteries, but also because they deal quite intensively with questions of life and death, not least within Serrailler's own family. The most recent book in the series The Shadows in the Street is perhaps the one most closely concerned with death, focussing as it does on the thorny topic of euthanasia. It's a lot heavier than Christie, but nowhere near as grim as my description might suggest. (Incidentally, signed first editions of the next book in this series, published this coming autumn, can currently be ordered from Susan Hill's website for less than RRP. Writing this comment prompted me to order one.)

  7. I've enjoyed reading both your post and the ensuing comments.

    I'm going to suggest 'Madame Bovary', for the description of Emma Bovary's suicide. It's quite shocking, I think, for a nineteenth century novel.


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at