Aside from perhaps the Virgin Mary herself, I don’t know of any other biblical myth more appropriated by artists than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse called forth in the Book of Revelation as prophecy to a broken world. From artists such as Albrecht Durer with his 1498 print The Horsemen to television shows such as Supernatural, Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death have long inspired the creative mind. For the myth to be interpreted and shared again with any relevance or interest to contemporary readers, it would take something entirely unique. Claire North’s 2017 novel The End of the Day meets the criteria.
Of all the books I’ve recommended over the years, I’m certain that this is the singular novel that people have never decided to read. And I do understand. The End of the Day is about Death, and we typically do not want to spend much time with Death. But North reinterprets the entity from the evil, looming black-robed figure depicted in Gustave Dore’s 1865 Death on the Pale Horse to an entity that is, albeit imminent, also thoughtful, respectful, and articulate. She does this by letting us glimpse Death through the eyes of his Harbinger, Charlie, an unassuming, somewhat naïve young man who simply needed a job and answered an ad in the paper.
It is Charlie’s story that we follow through the novel. His arc of becoming the Harbinger, his interactions with the people he meets, and how those interactions form who he becomes are what keep us reading. As Saga, the retired Harbinger, tells him, “you go before, and before there is death, there is life. You go to greet and to honour the living….” So this book is also about life, being alive, and honoring that condition. Readers see the awareness grow in Charlie as he hesitantly dates, falls in love, and tries to sustain a relationship while meeting the demands of his job.
Beneath the arc of Charlie’s ‘becoming’ are also the stories of the individuals he meets. Sometimes in brief encounters and sometimes in chapters, we understand why the Harbinger has come into their lives. Because Charlie’s arrival does not always mean Death will come as expected, though Death always follows. Sometimes Charlie is a courtesy, offering a gift or allowing individuals to prepare. Other times he is a warning, allowing individuals the opportunity to change their behaviors. If they do, Death may pass them by, at least temporarily.
But the most unique element to North’s presentation is that Death does not only come for people. Death also comes for dreams, cultures, or ideas such as when he sits beside the dying man who laments the election of a woman president. “…And Death closes his eyes. Because here too is something worth saying goodbye to, in its own quiet way.”
In this manner North addresses many of society’s issues as Charlie travels the world. Hatred,
racism, and violence against the LGBTQ community are here, as are war and the melting glaciers. At times you will need to put the book down. I’m sorry. The End of the Day is not a novel to binge. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. I would argue that it is imperative, especially now, because Charlie’s humanity is the force moving us through the darkest of moments. (And I should note here that when Charlie visits a member of the KKK, there is offensive language as North portrays the man. So please, be prepared.)
North’s use of somewhat ironic humor—and there is a lot of it—also moves us through, such as when the most powerful forces in the world are reduced to car rental:
In the footsteps of the Harbinger of War comes her master. Today he comes by Honda, that being the only car available for hire at the local airport, and Death sits in the passenger seat and tries to find north on the map….
Ultimately though, as in the tarot deck, Death is about change. The world as it changes. The inevitability of the world changing. Whether it is due to war or ideas or the passing of an individual life, the world thereafter is always different. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Through the Harbingers (and we do meet them all) and the people Charlie encounters we see the simultaneous necessity of change as well as the heart-breaking lament of it. In this juxtaposition, The End of the Day is a complex novel. I’ve read it twice and know that when I read it again, I will find subtleties that I missed in earlier readings. It is a novel about perseverance. It is about the strength of being human.