Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Originally published in May 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.
This is a novel about age, ageing, relationships and the ever present Death. The title, Memento Mori, means “a reminder of mortality” and refers to mysterious phone calls that the elderly people in the story keep getting, from someone who sounds different to each of them, but who always tells them the same thing: “Remember you must die”. The calls affect them in different ways - some ignore them, others accept the message, and at least one is driven to minor madness by it. The characters are all interconnected: friends, servants and former servants, their children and caregivers. Their relationships are complicated, full of memories of past illicit love affairs, and the present is fading health, dottiness, blackmail, and an ageing gerontologist who uses his friends as research material. As the calls escalate, so Spark burrows deeper into the lives and minds of her elderly protagonists, revealing their hopes and fears, and gently (and sometimes not so gently) satirising them. The humour is inky black, and some of her portraits of people, especially one of them (read the book to find out who), are very funny.
The story starts slowly, and for the first chapters it’s hard to see where it’s going (actually, you do know where it’s going all along, but you keep wondering who the mystery caller is and if he will do something more than just make spooky calls).
I liked Memento Mori better than the previous Spark novel I read, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s a more focused story and the characters are more distinct (I kept getting the girls in the other book mixed up - no danger of that with the characters in this book). Another reviewer complained that there are too many characters - I don’t agree. If the characters are well drawn and distinct like those in this story, it doesn’t matter how many of them there are.
Rating: A darkly humorous story about the ironies of life, death and old age. 4+ stars.