Redhook Books, April 4, 2017.
Charlie has recently taken a new job – as the harbinger of Death. He is the one who comes before Death, sometimes as a courtesy (to honour those who are dying and make a record of their story), and sometimes as a warning (a last chance to change one’s ways and potentially avoid death). While the premise of this novel at first seemed silly and absurd, it is actually quite dark and filled with deep philosophical musings, although it took a while before it all came together for me.
At a job interview after college, Charlie was chosen as the harbinger, partly for his love of music and his lust for life. He is often surprised by the mundane travel methods of a harbinger, such as economy class airplane tickets, organized by the bureaucratic office in Milton Keynes. At first, Charlie is amazed by his new experiences as he travels the world, but it is not long before the responsibilities of a harbinger wear him down. The ordinariness of Charlie’s work life is often humorous, especially in contrast to the dark realities that he sees on his journeys – from the rapidly melting ice of Greenland, to war in Syria, and the lingering racism of the southern United States.
Charlie’s job is to warn people that death is coming, but another important aspect of his work is to bear witness – not only for dying people, but also for whole ways of life that are slowly becoming extinct. He sees the darkest aspects of humanity, such as racism, homophobia and war, and yet he also sees the potential for hope and joy that can come out of our most terrible moments, as people change and adapt. Meanwhile, the other three horsemen of the apocalypse are running wild, creating all kinds of havoc in the human world.
I can’t say much about the plot because there is really not that much to it – this is an unconventional novel that focuses on the human condition rather than specific characters. Each chapter opens with seemingly random pieces of dialogue that seem like nonsense, but in fact these are the voices of humanity, and when woven together they create an intriguing picture of Charlie’s world. Most of all, this is a novel of ideas – Charlie is in fact the harbinger for all of us and our way of life, in which change is always inevitable: “We all die. We don’t have to live our lives fearing it.” (Loc. 3555)
Like North’s other novels, the concepts here are clever and unexpected. Charlie is such a relatable character, which makes this implausible story feel completely believable. In his world, the apocalypse is not sudden but incremental – humanity is destroying itself piece by piece, through prejudice and ignorance. Charlie feels empathy for all kinds of people, even those that are ruled by anger and hate, but he doesn’t let it bring him down. Instead, he believes that he is witnessing “not the death of a world, not the old falling off, but the new being born.” (Loc. 5862) It is only by recognizing the past that we can create a better future for all of us.
I received this book from Redhook Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.