This peculiar tale reminded me of Scheherezade in 1001 Nights and of last year’s other Death Personified story, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. I told the Eldest the bare outline of the plot, and she immediately said, “Chaucer’s already used that plot device.” Indeed, Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale does have three drunken men go into the forest to meet and conquer Death. And then there’s the flavor in the story, if not the humor, of The Princess Bride.
However, Keturah and Lord Death is neither fish nor fowl, neither romance nor comedy, neither fairy tale nor high tragedy. I thought about saying that it was a sort of prosaic hymn to Death itself, but it’s not that exactly. It may be speculative fiction about the inevitability of Death. Or about the power of love to transcend Death. It may be an old folk tale reworked into a modern novel. Or something else altogether.
I’m not completely sure. And in this book, the uncertainty fits. Keturah and Lord Death isn’t an allegory; it’s a regular old story of the kind that C.S. Lewis would have approved as much as he disapproved of allegory. It’s not exactly a “Christian” story, but it doesn’t contradict the Christian view of life and death.
“Tell me what it is like to die,” I answered.
He dismounted from his horse, looking at me strangely the whole while. “You experience something similar every day,” he said softly. “It is as familiar to you as bread and butter.”
“Yes, I said. “It is like every night when I fall asleep.”
“No. It is like every morning when you wake up.”
Ms Leavitt begins her tale with a snippet of Emily Dickinson (Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality) and ends with this revelation in the Acknowledgments:
“Finally, I express my love to my younger sister, Lorraine, who died many years ago of cystic fibrosis at the age of eleven. Now, as a mother and grandmother, I realize what a long journey dying must be for a child to make alone. I wish I could have walked with her a little way. This book is my way of doing so.”
If you like faity tale and romantic fantasy and uncoventional quest stories, the journey is well worth your time.