This Time of Dying, by Reina James

Who will cheer up the undertaker?
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This unusual and compelling first novel opens in mid-October 1918 and ends three weeks later. Every day more young lives are being lost on the grisly battlefields of the Great War, and now even that grim toll is about to be overtaken. A form of influenza has struck, indiscriminate in its virulence yet killing mainly those aged between 20 and 45. The pandemic was eventually to claim up to 100m lives.

In a chilly, cheerless London house live two widowed sisters. One is a teacher named - rather oddly - Allen Thompson; the other, Lily Bird, is a professional invalid who is losing her marbles. Lily has become convinced that their maid Ada is a spy, harbouring her German lover under their roof. The unexpected truth is that Ada's lover is actually named Gladys, and she is suffering from what was known as Spanish flu.

The man handling the business of dying with which the novel is largely concerned is a middle-aged, unmarried undertaker named Henry Speake. He is, by nature and occupation, philosophical and taciturn to the point of melancholy, but he finds comfort in music. The church organist is away fighting and Henry has taken his place, and has also agreed to play the piano for a school concert. This is how he meets and gradually falls in love with the brave and endearing Allen.

The story of their tentative and subtle courtship is strangely engrossing. Henry's sisters depend upon the family business he runs, and they consider him to be damaging it by stepping outside the bounds of propriety and consorting with a woman above his own class. Allen's own colleagues are equally scandalised by her growing interest in a tradesman, let alone an undertaker. At times, both the would-be lovers seem tempted to buckle under the weight of so much censure, so much death.

Reina James, whose own young grandparents died in the epidemic, has researched the period fastidiously but she carries her knowledge lightly, never allowing it to overwhelm the requirements of character and plot. Her style is clean, clear and laconic, yet such is the strength of her characterisation that the protagonists' secret fears and forlorn hopes take possession of the reader's imagination and inhabit it to the exclusion of all else. For as long as it takes to read this book there is little coming up for air, in a world of guttering gaslights and horse-drawn hearses, where unauthorised burials are conducted in overcrowded cemeteries under cover of darkness, and good people are subjected to sophisticated internecine cruelty and intolerable grief.

Loath as any reviewer is to reveal the ending of a novel, in this case, you do need to know that the book leaves the reader with a welcome flicker of hope. Yet the image evoked in the very last sentence, whimsical as it may be, most accurately sums up its atmosphere: "If every one of the newly bereaved," writes Henry Speake in his diary, "were to hold a lantern to the sky, the man in the moon would think the world to be on fire."