The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award isn’t just about literary debuts – occasionally, young writers can be prolific and I am pleased that there has been some recognition on this year’s shortlist for Claire North, a pseudonym for Catherine Webb. Webb/North has somehow found the time to publish several science fiction and fantasy novels under her own name and two pseudonyms, writing her first book when she was just 14 and is best known for ‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August’. Her latest novel ‘The End of the Day’ begins with an intriguing premise in which Charlie is the Harbinger of Death, living in Dulwich and answering to his boss, Death, at head office in Milton Keynes, travelling around the world usually to meet people before their lives end: “sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning”. However, the demands of the job begin to take their toll on Charlie and put a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend Emmi.
‘The End of the Day’ is a satirical sci-fi state-of-the-nation – or rather state-of-the-planet – novel which flits between various scenarios where Charlie is deployed in his role, addressing global topical concerns such as the housing crisis in London, the impact of climate change in Greenland, healthcare in the United States, war in Syria and corruption in Russia to name just a few. Charlie doesn’t necessarily appear at the end of a person’s life – in some cases, he precedes the end of a way of life and the people he encounters along the way react in very different ways to his presence from resigned acceptance to anger. His colleagues, the Harbingers of War, Famine and Pestilence, also cross paths with him occasionally.
I don’t normally read a great deal of science fiction or fantasy novels but the contemporary setting and light humour surrounding the petty bureaucracy and other inconveniences Charlie has to endure on a daily basis made this more appealing to me than I initially expected. As North said at the event for bloggers last weekend, making extraordinary events domestic is a way of making them more human and Charlie is an endearing character who comes across as essentially a good person trying to find his way through life (and death).
The substance of the main concept at the heart of ‘The End of the Day’ is more successful than the style in which it has been executed. The fragmented and episodic structure does become repetitive after a while and lacks narrative drive, but the overall result is an entertaining and often thought-provoking read.