‘Through the blur I saw a face in the smoke above me, a woman’s face: the face of Mrs Death.’

Salena Godden’s debut novel has been deservedly garnering much praise from critics and early readers. Her lyrical, mesmeric story sees her personifying death as a black woman ready to tell her story and experiences. Here, in this extract, we are introduced to Wolf Willeford, who will go on to tell death’s story.


Extract taken from Mrs Death Misses Death
By Salena Godden
Published by Canongate


She came ten-pin bowling into my life, smashing over all that was good and all that made sense. I clung to the memories of my life before, as the weather turned bad and dark storm clouds gathered. It was a horror, a swirling ugly mess of feelings of loss and betrayal and abandonment. The room in my head was cold with the shadow of all that was absent and broken. The silence was screaming and I tipped my head back and screamed into it.

I cried. Of course I cried, I was just a kid and I was alone in the world. I lost a tooth one minute and everything the next. I remember I put the tooth under my pillow, but that night it was not the tooth fairy that came to visit, it was Mrs Death herself. This was my first time watching her at work. It is masterful, the way Mrs Death works. So deliberate. So merciless. There is a system: I’m not sure how it works, but I believe she must have a system and know what she is doing. There has to be a method for who lives and who dies, and when and where, but I cannot work it out. How does she choose? How does she know what’s best? What is supper for the spider is hell for the fly, or some-thing? I forget how that saying goes. Mrs Death is always too too too much. Too soon. Too sudden. Too cruel. Too early. Too young. Too final.

Mrs Death took my mother in one greedy gulp of flame and I watched. I still don’t know why I survived. That last night is in fragments. I can remember the last dinner we had together was a chicken curry. My mum made the best coconut chicken curry. Jamaican cooking is the best. I still miss my mum’s cooking so much. If I had known then that that was the last meal my mother would cook for me, I would have kneeled down and kissed it. I would have only eaten half  and saved the rest to eat when I miss her. I would have distilled it, frozen it, locked it in a capsule, kept it in a safe. Or you know, I would have at least said thank you. Instead I just scoffed it down watching telly. I don’t remember what we watched on telly that night, I wish I could. We were being ordinary. We were being normal. Me and Mum on the sofa, we ate chicken curry and rice, we watched some telly and then when we went to bed, she said goodnight.

Goodnight, Wolfie, love you! she said. Night, Mum, love you too. She said the tooth fairy would be coming and remember to put the tooth under my pillow. Stop reading! Switch the light off! she probably said. Mum, what does the tooth fairy look like? Wait and see!

I never found out though. Next thing I knew everyone in the building was shouting and there was panic and smoke and then I was shivering and standing barefoot in my pyjamas in the road. They said there was nothing that could be done. I stood alone, frozen to the spot, cold feet on the wet pavement. Someone wrapped me in an itchy green that smelled sterile. I stared up at our building, the heat, the roaring fire, guffs of black smoke. And all around me was a chaos of blue lights, flashing lights, a scream of sirens, whilst the hungry flames grew higher and higher, scorching tree tops, tongues of flame, licking the heavens. Black pages, black ash, debris drifted, a black ash snow fell around me as our entire building burned. No sprinklers. No alarms. No warning.

I threw my head back and I howled into the charred and blackened sky. My home, my whole world was burning. I let her have it. I tipped my head back and roared and I hoped someone would hear it, perhaps that Death would hear it, hear me crying my heart out. Fat tears rolled down my dirty brown face.

Through the blur I saw a face in the smoke above me, a woman’s face: the face of Mrs Death. A kind black lady’s face was smiling down at me, and her smile, it was gentle, but that made me furious. I screamed at her. I was crying and crying and crying, raining tears to the river to the sea, from salt to salt, from root to root and blood to blood. And the wind swirled and echoed my pains. There was heat, a great heat within my pain, a searing heat in my heart and soul, a pain in my chest and guts and my cries were howls carried in the wind through time and space.


Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden is published by Canongate, priced £14.99.

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