Diane Awerbuck reviews Frankie Murrey’s ‘Everyone Dies’
Everyone Dies ★★★★★
Everyone Dies sounds like a pretty depressing title for a book, but it means a couple of things. Sure, the characters meet their physical ends. But we, the fleshly readers, must all some day go to the same end: only our routes differ. We are made to age, the Buddhists tell us. We are made to die.
The 12 stories in Frankie Murrey’s first book all deal with characters experiencing some sort of revelation about their lives thus far: we catch them at the crux of their decisions. There are many points of view, and the democratisation of first- and third-person speakers — all kinds of people, in a kind of chorus of the dead. These characters are themselves, but they are also us. We read because we want clues for how to live.
The pieces in Everyone Dies are short, but they are complete stories with distinct protagonists, detailed plots, universal themes, and a poetic bent — as if Barbara Kruger’s Aphorisms were narrated by Jeanette Winterson. They initially seem bleak but are actually stoic — not unlike their writer, who rebuffs efforts by the public to urge her into a more conventional, crowd-pleasing authorial role. This is who I am, say the stories. I speak my many truths. I have come to this place after my long history; these are my decisions, and here is their aftermath.
In her other incarnations, Murrey is less introspective. She works with survivors’ trauma narratives and also project-manages events such as the Open Book Festival. She is familiar with the idea that injury fragments our ideas of self, and that writing our story helps to set the events back in order. Our lives are stories, but we are always in the middle bit, and it can feel overwhelming.
Throughout these stories, Murrey emphasises how difficult it is to explain our experiences, to feel that we can know another person fully — or even ourselves. In “The Last Supper”, Lisa explains the cognitive dissonance: “I’ve never managed the word love, but beside me is Dave.” She goes on to say that she said “yes” to him because “I liked the way his ears secreted himself away behind his hair” but laments that she cannot explain her awful childhood into his “ready ears”. Attentive listening to the trauma story is an act of love and healing. Not everyone can bring themselves to vulnerability by sharing their story — or accept that love and healing. We’re all going to die, say nihilists and teenagers and those who have been damaged. So what’s the point of anything?
But if nothing matters, why bother to write a story at all? That these stories exist is their own act of resistance. Like Keats, whose headstone reads “Here lies one whose name was writ on water”, Murrey returns often to the idea of the inadequacy of words, their wateriness, drowning in the “river stories”. Think of Ophelia, who chose her own fate, floating in fragments of torn paper instead of flowers. But, like water, the words endure. They wear down the stone in the way.
There are endings, in books and in our lives, and we choose whether they are happy. In “There was this old woman”, the narrator understands that and says: “The light is back, and I remember suddenly that I am supposed to go towards it. That’s how the story ends. I turn to let it hit me full on my face. To let it cast the shadow of my life behind me.”