This is a strange, beautiful, eerily elegant book. The premise is simple: several elderly British people have been receiving phone calls from someone who says, “Remember you must die.” How each of them responds to this message is the story, which is deeply humorous without being flippant.
I was surprised to see how young Spark was when she wrote this – she’d just turned 41 when it was published in 1959. I suppose I’m in no position to judge how accurately the characters are drawn, given I’m a mere slip of a 46-year-old thing. But the pains and indignities of old age seem to be brilliantly portrayed.
If this book sounds depressing, I’m telling it wrong. Okay, it’s definitely a bit dark. One of my favorite characters, Jean Taylor, remarks, “Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.” And as I said, all the main characters are at least that old.
On the other hand, the prose is thickly laced with equally brilliant and far funnier passages, such as, “Mrs. Anthony knew instinctively that Mrs. Pettigrew was a kindly woman. Her instinct was wrong.”
And this: “Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she still was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy, to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable.”
If that paragraph leaves you cold, this book is not for you. If it’s your cup of tea, grab this strange, slim novel. Not only is the prose gorgeous all the way through, but the story is full of surprises. I can’t describe the plot in any detail because I’ll give something away. So I’ll just say that in barely over 200 pages, there were at least five spots where my eyes widened and I thought, “WOW, did I not see that coming.”