9 Novels That Don’t Fear the Reaper

Coco Picard, author of "The Healing Circle," recommends fiction that considers the meaning of life by confronting death

Photo by Mark Timberlake on Unsplash

Both of my parents died when I was in my early twenties. I was still immersed in their friend group at the time, as well as close with my extended family and two siblings, so I saw a range of reactions firsthand. It was as if the deaths happened differently for each of us. I found our experiences difficult to reconcile. Grief lay on the far edge of language, mirroring the different facets of intimacy that my parents cultivated with others. Twenty years later and I still respond to that alien quality of death.

Maybe for that reason I have an innate interest in novels that address the final stages of life, and a desire to understand what it must be like for those departing. When death is nearest, I see a taxonomy for life. I become aware of the complex intersections of power, body, external choice, and internal freedom that ultimately define the process of death, and shape the memories of those left behind. I find myself asking: Is death a talent? Can one die well? 

In my debut novel, The Healing Circle, a bad New Age mother abandons her dysfunctional family in California to pursue a miracle cure in Munich. Once she gets there, however, she wonders if she might have already died. Bedridden with a terminal diagnosis, an aloe plant called Madame Blavatsky as her primary companion, and a sense that despite all outward signs, she may in recover, she explores the memories of her life, thinking of those who have helped—and in some cases hindered—her healing.

Similarly, in the following books, characters reflect on lives lost. Main characters die or try not to die or are already dead; other characters inevitably consider the meaning of life, asking what it means to live well. Like my protagonist, Ursula, the protagonists in this list have no choice in the end but to face death head on.

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura, translated by Eric Selland

Here we follow an unnamed postman with little time left alive on Earth following a terminal diagnosis. Like any good death novel, the book isn’t only about the protagonist’s impending death, but also the somewhat distant death of his mother, showing how grief and mortality are entwined with enduring effects. In a wonderfully surreal twist, the Devil shows up, offering to extend the protagonist’s life in exchange for the disappearance of objects, including the deceased mother’s cat, Cabbage.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

In her debut novel, Austin leverages her protagonist Gilda’s acute fascination with death’s imminence through short, humorous fragments. While the form allows Austin to draw disparate meditations on death into the narrative, the book follows Gilda taking a job as a receptionist at a Catholic church by accident, concealing her own sexual identity and atheism, and carrying on the deceased former receptionist’s email correspondence. It’s not surprising that this series of decisions snarls into a mess Gilda must subsequently unravel as she grapples with her philosophy of fleeting insignificance.

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdağ Göknar

This postmodern detective story takes place in 16th-century Istanbul and follows a group of artists working on a secret illustrated book on orders from the Sultan. Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective including a posthumous narrator, a dog, a coin, Satan, a tree, death, and the ghosts of two 200-year-old dervishes, through which Pamuk draws out myriad interesting themes to “solve” first one murder, then others. Comparisons between European and Islamic art, love, loyalty, and women’s rights all play a part in the evaluation of suspects.

Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen

I am so excited about this book—another debut novel, this time by the author of Mouth, a poetry collection and recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2018. Activities of Daily Living explores the parallel efforts of Alice, who is Chinese American, to care for her slowly declining father—a white Vietnam veteran with dementia—and study the Taiwanese American performance artist Tehching Hsieh’s durational performance work. When Alice isn’t thinking about one man, she is thinking about the other, as though they each might reciprocally inform her understanding of the other, begging the question about private performances of care and the labor of well-being.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado De Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson

The narrator and protagonist of this book, Brás Cubas, has already died; he recounts his life while riding to the afterworld upon a hippopotamus’s back. Cubas is a Brazilian nobleman who never married or had kids. Entrenched in the ennui of class and privilege of the white upper class of Rio de Janeiro, he never loved anything passionately or succeeded at much of anything. Even if Cubas remains obtusely blind to his own condition, Machado de Assis cunningly lays it bare for readers. A mixed-race grandson of freed slaves, himself born in poverty, Machado offers a stunning portrait of a man whose reflections on life’s meaning is intrinsically bound to material social hierarchies and the subjugation of others. 

The Hole by Pye-young Pyun, translated by Sora Kim-Russel

Told from the perspective of Oghi, a professor who wakes from a car crash to find his wife dead and himself paralyzed, The Hole is a tight inner monologue of a man reviewing his life while under his mother-in-law’s care. The power dynamics of their relationship, combined with Oghi’s frustrated passivity, draws him inward, making him more aware of his deceased wife’s inner world, as he watches his mother-in-law dig up the garden beyond his window.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Jefferson, a young, uneducated Black man in a 1940s Cajun community, is the sole survivor of a liquor store shoot-out. Though innocent, he is convicted of the crime and given a death sentence. Meanwhile, Grant Wiggins, a university graduate, has just returned to teach at a local plantation school and wrestles with his decision, imagining he might be better off leaving the past behind and moving to another state. Upon the urging of his immediate family, Wiggins visits Jefferson and agrees to offer what lessons he can. The burgeoning friendship between these two men allows Gaines—himself born as a fifth-generation sharecropper in Louisiana—to explore questions around life, justice, the pursuit of knowledge, and the reverberations of racism.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Emezi’s novel begins with the death of its protagonist, Vivek Oji, and is narrated by multiple voices—including a posthumous Oji. The book reflects upon Oji’s life through flashbacks that wrestle with and attempt to capture Oji’s impression. Oji’s mother tries to solve the mystery of Oji’s death, but instead of a perpetrator we find the violence of a society that refuses to recognize nonbinary personhood. While the book is set in Nigeria, its message is universal.

Ghosts by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews

Ghosts is a slim book, every word in its rightful place. The novel follows a family living in a partially constructed (and so precariously unsafe) high-rise apartment building haunted by ghosts. The ghosts are a vulgar masturbatory gang, enduring primarily as a background nuisance. At first they seem of little consequence, and indeed would be entirely impotent, except for their ultimate effect on the adolescent daughter.  

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