Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
Published: 2009, namelos (Originally 2006)
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Personal purchase
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Each man, when he dies, sees the landscape of his own soul.
If ever a book deserves to be reviewed entirely by snippets of itself, it would be Martine Leavitt's Keturah and Lord Death.
While standing on the edge of her small country village, Tide-by-Rood, Keturah spots the elusive hart that has enchanted the minds of her fellow townsfolk for many years. Entranced, she follows it into the forest and becomes hopelessly lost. After wandering around for three days, Keturah knows that death is coming for her. Soon enough, Death appears as a handsome and solemn man astride a horse.
At their first meeting, Keturah hopes to delay her own death by entertaining Lord Death with a story about a young maiden who must live for her true love. Lord Death becomes so captivated by Keturah's story that, when she ends halfway through it, he grants her another day. If she can prove that she is the maiden from the story, then perhaps he'll allow her to live; otherwise Lord Death wishes to claim her for his bride.
Although Keturah initially returns to her town with the sole purpose of finding a true love to save herself, her perspective of life and death gradually begins to change.
Not quite a fairy-tale retelling itself, Keturah and Lord Death nonetheless weaves together many of the elements and themes present in well-known tales. Like Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights, Keturah hopes to keep her death at bay by telling partial stories by night. Like Persephone, she finds herself courted by the Lord of Death himself. And yet in addition to the clear homages to folklore traditions, Leavitt has also created a fairy tale that is entirely her own.
Tide-by-Rood is a poor, provincial town on the edge of a wealthy kingdom. With the exception of Keturah and a few of those about whom she cares the most, the majority of the townspeople remain nameless. Her best friends Gretta and Beatrice are in love with Tailor and Choirmaster, respectively. Many characters are referred to by trades or other superficial characteristics. The village itself is not overly descriptive. As a whole, the story is a short, quick read. Almost too short and quick. I do wish it could have been longer and more descriptive, and yet all of this plays directly into the idea that Leavitt is crafting another fairy tale, a story driven by allegories. The specifics of Keturah's life and the people within it are not nearly as important as the greater themes and messages of this story.
Given the nature of Keturah's predicament, death is a major theme throughout the book. Keturah is young and, when faced with the harsh reality of her own mortality, finds that there are so many things she has yet to accomplish. If she accompanies Lord Death, she'll never get married, never have children, never live in her own cottage, and, worst of all, never find love. Against this grim possibility, Keturah finds the courage and fortitude to do many things to defy Lord Death. She seeks spells and completes various tasks in order to find a man she can love and marry. She invents stories that remain unfinished by the end of the night, so that Lord Death will spare her life for another day. And yet, Keturah will not do anything that will harm another. She will not have another take her place, and, when she learns of threats to others' lives, she does what she can to save them.
Death is not the villain in this story, however. Personified as Lord Death, death is enigmatic, unknown, resigned rather than heartless, inevitable rather than cruel. Keturah learns that she has always had some sort of relationship with death, and yet death is the constant companion of all, even if most choose to ignore his existence.
"I am here for all to see, Keturah, if they wish it," he said, still calm. "I have touched them all in some way." He stepped closer to me. His tone had an edge to it now. "They think my realm is far away. Would they sleep at night if they knew I was waiting in their cold beds? Would they be so glad of the harvest if they knew I rested in their root cellar? It is not I who am the coward."Aptly titled, the book is primarily about Keturah and her relationship with death. For it is through her encounters with Lord Death that Keturah really begins to grow, gaining a better understanding of life and of herself. She learns to define her life not by what is missing from it, but to celebrate what is present. There's an ever-present pull between Keturah and Lord Death, a mix of fear, curiosity, and desire.
My only wish is that Lord Death could have been better personified, and that I could have gotten a better understanding of his relationship with Keturah. And yet that would have ruined the allegories and themes that Leavitt has so carefully crafted. Even to Keturah, death is a mystery, and that's how it is supposed to be.
"Tell me what it is like to die," I answered.Beautiful, isn't it? Page after page of Keturah and Lord Death is full of ruminations on life and death, the great unknown. If the plot of the story itself does not convince you that Leavitt has written her own fairy tale, then the beautiful prose should do so. Deceivingly simple on a superficial level, the language is intricate, profound, and moving; Leavitt's writing style is perfect for this sort of tale and is the type of writing that most authors can only hope to aspire to.
He dismounted from his horse, looking at me strangely the whole while. "You experience something similar every day," he said softly. "It is as familiar to you as bread and butter."
"Yes," I said. "It is like every night when I fall asleep."
"No. It is like every morning when you wake up."
Those seeking a faster-paced story should look elsewhere. Those seeking an engaging, thought-provoking, and beautifully written story full of fairy-tale elements should give Keturah and Lord Death a try. It's a slower story, but well worth the effort. Leavitt has crafted a truly masterful tale and, if they're anything like this, I will eagerly look into her other works.
Rating: 4.5 stars