Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
Keturah and Lord Death has been on my reading list for a while. So long, in fact, that its addition to my reading list predates not only the recent cancelled Kickstarter campaign for a film adaptation, but Kickstarter itself. Paranormal teen romance isn’t my bag (unless it’s hilariously awful—you guys are lucky you missed the six months I regaled everyone ran into with the story of Breaking Dawn), but, as my internships piled up on me, I thought it was time to unwind with a short young adult novel. Sometimes, you just need to relax.
Keturah and Lord Death is the story of Keturah Reeve, a poor teenage girl living with her grandmother on the edge of the forest. While out looking for the hart her local lord wishes to hunt, Keturah encounters Lord Death. Thinking on her feet, Keturah tells Death a story—her own story, about her desire to find true love. Death grants her a reprieve of a single day to seek out her true love. If he is found, Death will return for her in old age. If not, Keturah will die. As she desperately seeks her true love, she ends up saving her village, fixing up her friends, and discovering that she’s been set aside for something special.
In my creative writing class this last semester, we did a short unit on fairy tales. In preparation, we read Kate Bernheimer’s essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale”, as collected in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from the Tin House. In it, Bernheimer argues that the true allure and power of the traditional fairy tale can be boiled down into four components: flatness (specifically of character, in order to allow the reader a certain depth of response), abstraction (specifically of detail), intuitive logic, and normalized magic. I found myself thinking of this essay while reading Keturah and Lord Death, because it hits all of Bernheimer’s criteria. But the fairy tale is a short form—the example Bernheimer herself uses is but a paragraph. Can it work in a novel, even a short one?
I think it can—I’m an optimist, I believe that anything can be done well. But in Keturah and Lord Death, it doesn’t. I think a large problem is when that flatness of character meets first person perspective. I never felt like I had a handle on Keturah, especially when I finished and tried to figure out where in the timeline of the story the prologue could have taken place. About halfway through the book—which took me a lazy evening to read—I asked myself to describe Keturah using an exercise where you can’t use occupation, status, or physical appearance. I had absolutely nothing. A lot of paranormal teen romance gets flack for having main characters young women can easily replace themselves with, but even that wearying formula has personality traits—she’s snarky, she’s odd, she’s different, etc, etc. It’s a two-fold problem; Keturah herself has little identifying characteristics beyond “she’s beautiful!” and “she’s sensitive to death!”, but I wonder if it could have been solved or alleviated by having actual set-up that establishes Keturah’s personality, her alienation from her community, or her connection with death.
Because besides the glaringly by-the-numbers love story (I wanted to shake Keturah a few times for being dumb during her search for her true love; it’s called process of elimination, woman!), Keturah and Lord Death has a few flashes of being a beautiful meditation on death. As Keturah begins to realize what her true fate is, she begins to face the reality of death—her contemplations and and Lord Death’s own words on death are really just beautiful. It’s a few steps removed from traditional paranormal romance, where the supernatural hunk is tamed and fetishized, because Leavitt doesn’t compromise on the fact that Lord Death is, in fact, Death. But these flashes all too quickly fade away under the glare of the story proper. I was disappointed to find that the novel doesn’t take place over the course of a day, but rather Keturah keeps cheating Death out of time. Again, anything can be done well, and I appreciate the nod to Scheherazade, but given Keturah’s casual approach to the extremely urgent task of finding her true love, I started to feel like it was weak storytelling more than anything else. I was expecting a lot more from this novel, based on word-of-mouth and the fact it was a finalist for the National Book Award, but we just weren’t meant to be.
Bottom line: Keturah and Lord Death has a few flashes of being a beautiful meditation on death—but these flashes fade in the glare of the by-the-numbers love story and the flat characters, including the protagonist. Give it a miss.
I rented this book from the public library.