Salena Godden introduces Mrs Death Misses Death

In a world where mortality is at the forefront of many people's minds, Salena Godden introduces her debut novel: the collected memoir of Mrs Death herself, collated by a troubled young poet

Feature by Heather McDaid | 28 Jan 2021
  • Salena Godden

Salena Godden was walking through Whitechapel when she heard the voice of her narrator, crystal clear, for the first time: “I know a lot of dead people now.”

It was from that line that the title character of Mrs Death Misses Death gradually revealed herself, her collected memoir coming to life. Best known as an acclaimed poet and performer, Godden’s debut novel began from a place of mourning. Surrounded by death both in her own life and in the world at large – with legends like Bowie and Prince then recently gone – she wanted to make sense of it, to rationalise.

Death herself is a black working-class woman – “no human more invisible, more easily talked over, ignored, betrayed, easy to walk past” – shapeshifting into many forms to work unseen. “This idea of how she is, for a better word, so good at her job, so successful at the job, is possibly because we’re not looking that way,” Godden explains.

“From there, her narration and how she spoke started to form, imagining how she might write letters or diaries or songs or poems, what she might eat, or how she might appear, as Billie Holiday, as Nina Simone, as well as the girl behind the counter selling your tobacco, or the woman in the hospital mopping the floor in the cancer ward. Kind of invisible as well as prominent – powerful.”

Mrs Death’s memoir is collated by Wolf Willeford, a young poet living in the attic rooms of the Forest Tavern in East London. The two first met when Wolf was a child, having lost their mother in a fire, and are a perfect balance to tell this tale. “Wolf’s very magical,” Godden notes. “Wolf in a way is close to death – Wolf is troubled and perhaps suicidal, and that to me felt the perfect friend to death, that kind of young, troubled, lonely lost soul who’s known a lot of tragedy.”

Acquiring an antique desk – a gregarious character in its own right that Salena pictures as having the voice of RuPaul (“I could have been a piano!”) – becomes a conduit for the duo’s journey, where they navigate death across the eras, sharing tales and memories. Timelessness is captured through a mix of prose and poetry – laments and lullabies, prayers, snatches of memory sitting between the veil of dream and real life. The story sits in a dreamlike state, flowing prose interrupted by transmissions of people’s last thoughts.           

Death can be a tricky subject. Though inevitable, the language isn’t always there to engage with it beyond a dreaded looming darkness. “There’s a whole thing that if you speak of it that it comes, or death comes in threes; there’s so much stuff we have, ritual and superstition. I think Mrs Death is quite a character. She’s seen it all, she’s this powerful black woman, probably the most feared woman ever. Fearing death has got to be right up there, right?”

A story of voice and memory, both profound and hilarious in one breath, there’s a need to share Mrs Death’s tale – she had, after all, had enough, and wanted to unburden herself. At one point, we read that writing a book can hurt, but not writing one can hurt even more, a notion that, even in a story packed with lessons on life and love and joy and death, stands out.

“It’s the idea of when you’re not speaking your truth, and not saying something you really want to say,” she explains. “When you keep putting something off, you berate yourself and put yourself down for not getting something finished. It’s easy to have a really good idea, it’s difficult to finish something, isn’t it? So to pursue it, and to persist in finishing it, hurt, but it hurt a hell of a lot more giving up.”

In a time where death is at the forefront, it’s rare to find a book that so thoroughly reminds us about the joys of life, the fragments of memories that last a lifetime, rooting out what really matters. “Even though it’s got death in the title, it’s a book about life – it’s about living life,” says Godden. “It’s about telling people you love them before it’s too late. It’s not really about death, which death often isn’t. So much of this book is about facing your fear, and how empowering it is to see fear for what it is, to see doubt, and to find courage, to find hope.

“I moved to London when I was 19 to be a writer; this summer I will turn 49 – that’s a really long time to wait to get a novel published, that’s a hell of a lot of picking myself up and pushing myself along, and it hurt more to give up, and to let doubt and fear win than to keep going, like a cross country runner, you’ve just got to keep going even though everything hurts.”

Mrs Death Misses Death is out now via Canongate

Salena Godden appears at The Fountain's Evening of Quarantine Dreaming, 25 Feb, 9pm, part of Paisley Book Festival