There’s something about the idea of Death as a tangible being that really interests me. It’s odd, because I’m not usually a “dark” person, if you will, nor am I particularly into anything else death or end-of-life related. But despite that, I find personifications and physical incarnations of Death fascinating. Perhaps it’s the imagination it takes to give a personality and other life-like characteristics to such a shadow-y and terrifying concept. Whatever the reason, I love it. So when I saw that this novel about a man living thousands of reincarnations of life while trying to find a way to stay with his true love, Death, I jumped on it. And let me assure you, the imagination here did not disappoint.
“Milo is a soul. An old soul. A very old soul. He has lived 9,997 lives and sometime during those 8,000 years of reincarnations, he fell in love with Death as she came to, over and over, welcome him to the afterlife. Souls are eventually supposed to achieve Perfection, a joining into the Oversoul of the universe – each of their reincarnations serves to help them learn lessons on how to reach that nirvana. Sometimes they come very close to just miss it by a hair. Sometimes things go pretty poorly and they have to live penance lives (say, as a cricket) afterwards. But each life gets you closer. Except Milo loves Death, aka Suzie, and she lives in the Afterlife. So he maybe isn’t trying as hard as he should be to reach Perfection, because then he’ll pass beyond where he can be with her. And Suzie has a secret of her own: she’s tired of being Death, she wants to quit. Milo and Suzie just want to be together, even though everyone says its unnatural and impossible, but time may be running out for them. Each soul only gets 10,000 tries to reach Perfection before they become Nothing. And if that happens, it’ll be Suzie who can’t follow Milo…
This book ebbed and flowed in a way that is unlike anything I’ve read before. There were short tales of Milo’s previous lives, some short snippets of his experiences and even just some single life descriptions, interspersed with some much longer tales. These are spread all over time and space, though the longer tellings primarily focused on the last few of his 10,000 reincarnations. These are also mixed in with longer and shorter tales of Milo’s time in the Afterlife between reincarnations – how it mirrors regular life but is somehow sharper – and of course his time with Suzie. Altogether, it created an incredibly intriguing, almost hypnotizing, method of storytelling. The language itself is almost fable-like at times, and utilitarian at others, and that juxtaposition somehow fits the story exactly right. In general, I applaud the writing and style completely.
I was thrilled and overwhelmed by how many stories we get throughout this novel. I mean you go in thinking “reincarnations, cool, so we might hear about a few different life stories here,” but the breadth of what was actually covered in beyond what I ever would have expected. There are lives lived in the ancient past and in the unimaginably far future. There are lives as famous people, everyday people, men and women, animals and insects. There are lives where Milo dies young, lives where he does amazing things, lives where he loses himself, lives lived adjacently to people and places we recognize and lives that are incredibly foreign. He has so many experiences and so many deaths. Truly, the representation is impressive and imagination to create them all is expansive.
I mostly just loved this novel. The small details, like the many ways Milo’s name is changed but remains his own through his reincarnations and the reappearance of asthma/respiration issues that are consistent across his reincarnations are small but perfectly used. And there were other perfect small moments as well, like when Suzie looks back on learning to be Death and talks about how some creatures, like tropical birds and wolves, liked to be sung to as they died, while Presbyterians and hamsters liked a quick no nonsense death. Sometimes it’s those little items that really bring the reality to a story. I also definitely enjoyed the creativity of the “future” lives that Milo lived – it’s the perfect amount of sci-fi for someone who respects the imagination of it, but doesn’t want a whole book full of it. It’s there, it’s detailed and realized in full, it’s weird and foreign, but it doesn’t take over.
The exploration of the idea that life is hard, and that even after almost 10,000 tries and the ability to prepare or have advance knowledge, Perfection is nigh on impossible to achieve, is fully rendered. The recurring theme of the need for balance in the Universe, and the efforts to fight against it (in favor of love) that Milo and Suzie make, is something universal that every reader will be able to identify with in some way. In fact, now that I think about it, there are quite a few topics/points like this one where this book got fairly philosophical and introspective, but in a very sneaky way. Very cool, and unexpected.
Although Death was not as central as I was expecting, I was definitely not disappointed in the way she was presented – Suzie was not a real soul, but she was something individual all the same. Perhaps a little odd, but charming, Suzie was every bit deserving of a “life,” and an ending. The scenes of her and Milo together, both their love-making and their normal interactions, are described poetically and eccentrically (a very fun combo). And the ending, the way things work out, was right in line with the rest of the story, nothing overly spectacular. It was just one more story told in the way the rest were, but maybe detailed and wrapped up in a marginally more satisfying way. That may not sound like the type of ending you want to read, but when you get there, I challenge you to argue that it wasn’t exactly what was called for. Anything else would have chafed. I salute the author for not taking it too far.
This is the epitome of a quirky love story. It’s got a little bit of everything, a healthy dose of meditation, and a whole lot of the otherworldly. It’s deftly written, skillfully paced, and precisely crafted. It’s pulls you along in it’s strange and appealing ebb and flow and when you get to the end, you’ll be both satisfied with and left wanting more of Milo’s 10,000 lives and 9,999 Afterlives with Suzie. It’s the perfect combination of feelings have at the end of a book.”
This ARC was provided to me courtesy of First to Read and Del Ray Books in exchange for an honest review.
For fun, for posterity, and because I haven’t added this section to one of my reviews in awhile, here are a few quotes that I loved:
“Two plus two equals four. So does five minus one.”
“In the morning, she wrapped them both in her long hair, which became wings, which became a wind and dry leaves.”
“She took his hand and some love traveled up his arm and burst inside him like a galaxy. For a moment, he contained wonders and stars and time, and could speak Spanish, and existed in twenty dimensions. He also began to explode a little.”
“…the world of having the Earth itself as a body. Streams and currents were his arms. Storms were his voice. The moon and constellations were his changing moods.”
“For eight thousand years, he had awakened by a river, and Suzie had been there, and everything was fine. Now everything was bullshit.”
“A primordial morning, full of mists and loomings. A river of mist flowed under the bridge, and a shore of mist came to meet it.”
“Outside, the afterlife remained the same as always. Earthlike, and also dreamlike. Days came and went. Streets changed direction. The balance of Heaven and Earth followed its own inscrutable schedule. Clouds flew. Rain fell. The moon changed.”
“They were reading newspapers on the couch together, legs intertwined. She gave him a kind of hug with her legs. This, he thought. This is Perfection. Very few people know how to leave a moment like that alone and not fuck it up. Milo didn’t know.”
“They were the most beautiful fugitives in all eternity.”