Orbit | 2017 (6 April) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
Charlie hasn’t been in the job long but there is much about it that appeals – the frequent travel all around the world, often to the most unexpected places, the chance to meet a wide variety of people, and good prospects. Because surely the one person guaranteed a long and safe future is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death. But for everyone else there comes an end of the day and there they will meet Death. But, before that, they meet Charlie.
Charlie’s arrival on your doorstep doesn’t necessarily mean an imminent death, as Charlie is at pains to answer whenever he is asked. Sometimes, he says, he is sent as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning, and he always brings a gift. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to deliver it because Death’s office in Milton Keynes can despatch Charlie to some of the most dangerous or remote places on Earth, such as the home of polar bears in the frozen north, the world’s war zones, dangerous city streets. Occasionally, Charlie will glimpse over his shoulder a pale-faced figure, sometimes male, sometimes female, but generally Death leaves Charlie to work alone. And as he carries out his important job, Charlie learns to question his own life by the examples of others that he observes and his views on death, life and the meaning of the end are challenged to their core.
Claire North is a fine writer of astonishing novels. Each time I read one I wonder what on earth she will write next but yet again, with The End of the Day, Claire North proves that there is no limit to her extraordinary imagination and her powers to convey ideas and themes – both grand and intimate – that can stop you in your tracks. As always, at the heart of the novel is a figure very difficult to forget (with the exception, of course, of The Sudden Appearance of Hope) and Charlie is a marvellous creation. He takes his job very seriously indeed, he wants to do a good job, and he welcomes the opportunities it gives him, and his heart is open. Strangely, if there’s one character even more humane that Charlie in this novel it’s Death himself, or herself. When he or she isn’t angry, that is.
There is a relentless bleakness about some of the places Charlie visits, the experiences he must undergo and the suffering he witnesses. Everything that is wrong with the world can be found in these pages, whether referred to in asides or presented explicitly. And while some of it is driven by a fear of death and a need to understand it or bargain with it, much of it is the result of an evil that Charlie struggles to understand.
There are so many clever ideas in The End of the Day, some fascinating recurring themes, characters and references, all adding to the meaning of the book’s title. The end of the day – but for what? for whom? If I had to to look for a fault, for me this would be the inevitability of some of the places that we’re taken to, the conscious topicality of its themes and sins, and, as result, this isn’t my favourite Claire North novel (the competition for that title is intense). But this is a minor point indeed when one considers what a clever and heartfelt portrait of the world Claire North gives us and what a gift we have in the character of Charlie.
Despite the darkness, I was left with such a feeling of warmth and wonderful weirdness from this novel. Its approach to death is compassionate while people are shown to be possible of redemption and the end, when it comes, needn’t be feared. Charlie endures for us all – it’s powerful and very well done. Picking one word to describe Claire North’s novels isn’t easy but if I had to pick one, the word would be ingenious.