‘Memento Mori’ by Muriel Spark

My rating: 2 stars

The premise of Memento Mori by Muriel Spark can lead readers to expect an enthralling dark mystery. This is not the case, however. The book is most of all a tale about old age, the fear of dying, the inevitability of death, and how elderly people can have their concerns dismissed by society. If these matters are not without interest, the execution turned the story into a fragmented, dull and characterless book.

Seventy-nine-year-old Dame Lettie Colston has been receiving anonymous calls. When she lifts the receiver, the male caller only says “remember you must die”. After one of those occurrences, she calls her brother Godfrey. He decides to pick her up to stay at his home for a while. His wife Charmian was a well-regarded novelist. Although she suffers from dementia and her memory is failing her, she still has some moments of lucidity.

While attending the funeral of Lisa Brooke, Dame Lettie becomes convinced that Godfrey has to hire Mrs Pettigrew to look after Charmian. The only problem is that she is thought to be the beneficiary of Lisa’s will and, therefore, is probably not willing to continue to work. Soon they learn that Lisa Brooke had a secret husband, though. Since Mrs Pettigrew, who thinks herself exceedingly cunning, doesn’t inherit anything to her great displeasure, she ends up working at Godfrey and Charmian’s house.

Could these characters have been remarkable? Absolutely. There is no character development throughout the book, though. They have conversations with one another, but only rarely are their personalities conveyed. There is not much depth to the characters. Moreover, there are so many references to secondary characters with seeming no great relevance to the initial plot that it’s difficult to remember whom they all are.  The fate of almost all of them is just disclosed near the end as if Muriel Spark was following a checklist.

The writing style didn’t appeal to me either. I had the permanent feeling that I was supposed to find the story and the interactions between the characters funny, but I never felt like laughing. Although there are some intriguing moments when the focus is on Dame Lettie, Charmian, Godfrey and Mrs Pettigrew, they are so few and far between that the prose never benefits from a mysterious tone and ambience.

I know that reading a book was mostly a waste of time when I have to skim through the last chapters to get to the end as soon as possible. That was the case of Memento Mori. After enjoying The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I expected more from Muriel Spark.

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