After enjoying the other two Muriel Spark novels so much this one turned out to be a bit of a let down at first and took a while for me to get into it (even though it’s only about 220 pages in total), although it did pick up towards the end – or maybe I just became more invested in it as I stopped trying to find “likeable” traits in the characters and could enjoy the humour more.
Memento Mori follows a group of aging characters who are plagued by anonymous telephone calls in which the caller politely checks he’s talking to the right person, then says “remember you must die” and hangs up (although he’s not adverse to asking the answerer to pass on the message to the intended recipient). The receivers of these calls – all known to each other and moving within the same social circles although now very much decrepit – react to this in different ways: some with anxiety, some with outrage, and some with philosophical acceptance. I think by the end of the novel all of the central characters have received such a call (even Mrs Pettigrew, despite her shutting it firmly out of her mind and denying it). I suppose the calls act as a catalyst for a cast who are already obsessed with death and dying; the inhabitants of the ward on which Jean Taylor now resides regularly rewrite their wills and when one of the other characters dies they find she’s rewritten hers something like 22 times in 40 years. Most of the characters are esteemed or previous esteemed – authors, business owners – and their domestic help, and go to show that age does not necessarily guarantee kindliness or grace, as most of the squabble with one another and are still full of suspicion, jealously and/or resentment.
I think that’s wherein my initial negative reaction to the novel lies – that there’s no one obviously “likeable” – there was no one (that I could see) who was an obvious “hero” in the book; whose side you were meant to be on. As with the other novels I’ve read by Muriel Spark, this was extremely witty and well written, and once I got over trying to figure out who I should be rooting for I was able to enjoy it a lot more.