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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Who's Who in Hell by Robert Chalmers

If you read the blurbs on the cover, you'd think Chalmers's debut novel was a biting satire of publishing and modern life.  It is that, in part, but that's really not the point of the story. Daniel makes a living as an obituary writer, writing not only anticipatory obituaries to have on hand (an actual practice by newspapers) but satirical obituaries too truthful and cutting to see the light of day. That, in turn, inspires him to begin the titular book, a collection of obituaries of horrible criminals and human monsters.

But while Chalmers pokes plenty of fun at the newspaper industry, the obituaries are just one piece in the larger theme of mortality and how we cope with it. The central story is really Daniel's and Laura's relationship.  This could have so easily gone wrong -- Daniel's your standard ordinary guy trying to get by, and Laura at first threatens to be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that pulls Daniel out of his slump. But Chalmers smartly develops Laura's character, giving her a personality, relationships independent of Daniel, and her own struggle reconciling life and death.  This makes the heartbreaking ending all the more poignant; the last few chapters gutted me.

I'm not sure I would have read this book had I known what it was really about. But I'm glad I did, because Chalmers depiction of a relationship both conventional and unconventional was honest and moving.

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