“I am the Harbringer of Death,” Charlie explains countless times to airport security, friends of friends, nurses, doctors, strangers in bars, passengers on trains. Because before Death, comes Charlie: sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning, but always before. Meeting people from every possible walk of life, Charlie discovers what it is to be human in The End of the Day, a genre-defying tale.
When we first meet Charlie he’s somewhere in Central America, trying to locate an old woman called Mama Sakinai. He explains to a mule driver that he is the Harbringer of Death. He is here to bring Mama Sakinai some whisky. Sometimes Charlie comes to mark the end of the world, or a world. In this case, he is marking the end of an era: Mama Sakinai is the last person who knows the ancient language of her tribe — it will die with her. And thus begins one of many trips to bring various items to various people all over the world.
If that sounds a little nebulous, that’s because it is. It is, in a nutshell, is how The End of the Day progresses: as a series of episodic events, visits and meetings across the world, from the deep south of America to the icy peaks of Greenland. The plot (if you could call it that) is far from conventional and, if there is one thing readers will have a gripe with, it is the fact that no real plot thread ever quite emerges. Whilst the novel does manifest in what could be called a climax, readers arrive there almost in surprise, never quite having worked out exactly what they were working towards until they got there.
But that, perhaps, is the beauty of Claire North’s work. The question that pervades the book is: What is Death? And eventually Death’s Harbringer, the unassuming Charlie, seems to come to the conclusion that Death is life. And life is messy and without a clear or controllable narrative.
Charlie himself propels the plot forwards by the sheer likeability of his character. He is thoughtful, never judgemental, self-deprecating in a very sweet and British way. The people he visits have often done terrible things: there are members of the KKK, those who have committed heinous war crimes, the prejudiced — and the list goes on. But Charlie tries never to judge. The fact that he is the Harbringer of Death is met with many different reactions: anger, fatalistic acceptance, amusement, denial. But never — never — disbelief. It is arguably the first reaction many would have, and that, more so than the lack of plot, could pull readers out of the story.
North does err on the side of preachy. She seems to have very clear political ideals and a very strong notion of what constitutes right and wrong. Whilst in many other respects the novel reflects the messiness and unpredictability of life, in this respect, it falls somewhat short. Regardless of whether it is truly so easy to delineate right and wrong, North would’ve done better not to spoon-feed readers such strong moral beliefs.
These few gripes aside, The End of the Day is an original, thoughtful and often amusing story that will no doubt delight readers who can get past the fact that there is no conventional sense of a plot. Charlie’s unassuming observations on the nature of humanity often tread the line between comic and tragic, and readers will find themselves rooting for him as he tries to maintain some semblance of his own life between trips across the globe. Claire North will have amassed quite the fan base with her previous works, and The End of the Day is sure not to disappoint.
Claire North’s 2017 novel, The End of the Day, is a road trip. Charlie is the Harbinger of Death. This isn’t some mystical legacy he’s inherited. It’s a job. He applied and interviewed for it. Death sends him many places to visit many people, nearly always with a gift. Charlie’s visit can be a courtesy, or a warning. Charlie himself never knows which one it is. We follow him around the globe as he delivers his strange and idiosyncratic gifts.
North’s book shifts in time and point of view. While we are mostly pretty close to Charlie, we visit other individuals, like a Greenlander professor who walks out onto the ice pack and the Harbingers of War, Pestilence, and Famine. The story is interrupted with short chapters that are nothing but snippets of dialogue, the type of thing you might overhear in an airport security line, or a crowded restaurant. Death itself does put in an appearance, more than once, but it is Charlie we care about, and Charlie who makes us understand, as he begins to understand, the nature of death.
The End of the Day is a beautiful book that was somewhat baffling at first. It’s hard to discuss a fantasy book by a British author that includes Death as a character without evoking Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and there are resonances here, but North’s book is its own thing, and Charlie is his own character. Much of the resonance comes from typically understated British humor, and bureaucracy. In addition to tracking down the people he must visit, which is not always easy, Charlie must negotiate with the office in Milton Keynes, an actual Buckinghamshire town, where the people who book his travel and review his receipts work. In the USA, we’d call them HR. While Charlie is a sincere, pleasant man, the other Harbingers take more overt pleasure in their jobs, and there is much acid-etched social commentary when they are on the scene.
The plot of the book, and there is one, is about Charlie’s crisis of faith, as he begins to struggle with the job. Death comes to all things; a way of life can die. A dream can die. In North’s fictional world, people know that Charlie is the Harbinger of Death and inevitably there are people who think he can be used to coerce Death, and his own life is often at risk. Others feel compelled to show Charlie the results of death, which is what happens to him in Syria, where a warlord who wanted to be a poet drags Charlie to the scene of a slaughtered village. Another time, a group of Belarussian thugs try to hold Charlie hostage to buy a few more months of life for their leader.
From early in The End of the Day, when Charlies watches the polar ice of Greenland crack and melt, through a long road trip through the USA, Charlie keeps encountering a wealthy, successful man named Patrick, invited by Death to witness certain things. Patrick is an enigmatic character. I didn’t know quite what to make of him. He’s certainly not a good person; his success is built mostly on destroying existing things, like council housing, to build new things that will sell for huge amounts of money. He’s not a bad person, either, and he helps Charlie more than once. Patrick decides that Death wants him to see that the world is changing, and that Patrick is the harbinger, so to speak, of the new order. I really hope Patrick’s wrong.
The shifts in time, the Greek-chorus interludes, and the geographic meandering make The End of the Day a book that does not contain a sense of urgency, but I was captivated by it, by Charlie and by Death itself. The book doesn’t flinch from depicting war, nationalism, greed and racism. Neither does it flinch from showing us beauty, mystery and love. It’s a book that will start you off baffled, and leave you thinking, and looking around the world with a renewed appreciation for life.