Monday, June 30, 2008

Book Review: How the Dead Live by Will Self

How the Dead Live was the second book I read for the 1% Well Read Challenge. It was actually an alternate on my list, but I found it at the library and decided to give it a go because I am endlessly fascinated with authors’ visions of the afterlife.

Summary: Lily Bloom is old. And dead. Cancer took her and now she’s existing in a shadow London in a dirty flat surrounded by a bizarre cast of afterlife characters including a half formed baby (Lithy) that never made it out of her body, her dead 9 year old son Rudeboy who never ceases to shout obscenities and racial slurs, a trio of “fats” (spirits of the all the weight she lost and gained over her lifetime), and an extremely enigmatic and annoying aborigine spiritual guide named Phar Lap. She spends her dreary days attending Personally Dead meetings, working at a PR agency to earn money to buy cigarettes (the dead’s one real pleasure it seems), and spying on her two still living daughters, the prissy and plump Charlotte and the gorgeous heroin junkie Natasha. Occasionally she visits the Deatheaucracy office where they tell her she has to pay her back taxes before she can move on, though where exactly she could move on to is the mystery that is supposed to keep you reading.

My reaction: I absolutely HATED the first 26 pages of this novel (titled Epilogue though it comes at the beginning of the book). Reading it was like being thrown into a freezing lake in the dark. I hated the characters, I hated the language, but I made myself keep reading because I was curious to find out how the dead live. The next section was entitled “Dying”. This was all about Lily’s last few days of life, in the hospital, and at home with her daughters. I began to hate the book less – though dying is never fun, Lily was sarcastic and insightful enough to hold my interest. And Natasha’s story, as tragic as it was, was also compelling reading and carried me through the rest of the novel to an ending that turned out to be pretty clever.

There are some interesting ideas here and it did grow on me as I read on, so I guess it was worth reading in the end. But I wouldn’t personally put it on any list of 1001 books that MUST be read before you die.

Anyone have any recommendations of books that cover similar territory? I’ve read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and I’ve heard a lot about Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere, but I’d be happy to hear about more books on the imagined afterlife.


Anonymous said...

I have also read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but wouldn't have if not recommended by a friend. I tend to avoid books like this.

Anonymous said...

I liked The Lovely Bones but other than that I don't know of any to rec. I'm going to forward THIS POST (cuz it's a terrific review) to my friend who would possibly love this book. I'll ask if she has any to recommend.

Perla said...

Lenore I do not have an email for you so I'm spreading the word. You are my winner for How I Found the Perfect Dress by Maryrose Wood. Please email me!! You'll find it on my blog profile or on myspace


Marie Cloutier said...

Good for you for hanging in there. I'm not sure I would have! :-)

Anonymous said...

Personally I didn't care for "Elsewhere"... I can't even put my finger on why. But if you liked this then you'll prob like that... Although the main character is a way younger girl.

Anonymous said...

Is "Will Self" the author's real name, or a pseudonym?

It's SELF WILL on an alphabetical list ... am I the last one to get this joke?!

Michelle Fluttering Butterflies said...

Wow. This sounds interesting. I think I've tried reading other books by the author (unless I'm imagining it) and didn't really like his style, but I might give him another chance now..

Cassie said...

The Breif History of the Dead
by Kevin Brockmeier

Lenore Appelhans said...

That one is on my wish list Cassie!