Maggie Potter is an independent funeral director in picturesque tourist village Queenstown. Her life is not what she had dreamed for herself, but she does have her son, her recently-returned-from-the-UK daughter, and her firm circle of female friends. But when one of her friends is diagnosed with cancer, her daughter starts acting oddly, and an annoying Doctor seems to always be where she is, Maggie is confused and feels stretched to look after everyone. Maggie’s life may not be what she had dreamed for herself, but it turns out no-one’s is …
I was a way into this book before I realised it wasn’t a thriller – as Hot flush, Fenwicke’s first novel, had been. Just as the menopausal super-powered heroine in Hot flush was out fighting injustice, I thought who better to go on a mystery murder quest than an undertaker, sorry funeral director, in small population/high visitor numbers Queenstown? But Death actually is about female empowerment in a different way. It is about the importance of acceptance, friendship and just going with whatever life – often read “men” – hurls at you.
The male characters in Death actually are almost tokens: there is the good son, the shallow actor, the misogynist TV celebrity chef, the “is-he-too-good-to-be-true” doctor. But the women are complex, messy and run the plot. Maggie was deserted by her husband and moved to Queenstown with her two young children when her parents died. Her older brother promptly abandoned her too, so she set about taking over the family funeral business. She made good friends, especially Elka, a high-class chef, and Betty, an older wiser woman.
The novel starts shortly after Maggie’s daughter Kate returns from London, and with the death of Betty. The story rips along with Nick, Maggie’s son, often providing the linkage between plots – as he is a delivery guy for Elka’s restaurant and catering business. The structure is very much ‘slice of very action-packed life’ – with lots of sub-plots: the famous movie star who is determined to do his own stunts while filming scenes in a jetboat, the obese ex-ski champion Lizzie, the story of Kate and the arrogant celebrity chef who refused her assistance to allow her to stay in London, but who has mysteriously followed her to New Zealand, and that of Jilly, whose death leaves her luxurious Lake Hayes house on the market. And throughout the book are the threads of Elka and her cancer diagnoses, and of Ben, Elka’s doctor, and his on/off relationship with Maggie.
Death actually is a pleasant read but doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects like rejection, terminal illness, suicide, obesity and death. In fact, the aspects of the story I found the less compelling were those tracking the typical romance novel arc between Maggie and Ben. Where it shines is in the unexpected developments and the ability for the characters to re-adjust to circumstances. For the most part the flow is good, although there is a tendency to recap a few times towards the end of the novel, rather than take us through the events as they happen, but by then it is clear how things are going to settle so this doesn’t interfere too much with the flow of the book. Death actually would definitely be an appealing read for fans of, for example. Katie Fforde, and very possibly for a wider audience as well, so give it a go!