Review: The Obituary Writer by Lauren St John

I picked this book up from library a couple of weeks ago as I was utterly intrigued by the title.  The premise behind the novel is just as compelling…

The main character Nick Donohue, an obituary writer for The Times, survives a horrific train crash with a barely a scratch on him whilst his fellow passengers are killed or maimed.

Whilst others may regard him as incredibly lucky to be physically unscathed, Nick ultimately has been devastatingly affected by the crash.  He begins to suffer from vivid nightmares in which he apparently predicts the deaths of a number of individuals.  Afraid to sleep, he finds himself increasingly distanced from his former life and colleagues and eventually, he is convinced to leave the urban sprawl of London for a Cornish village.

With no hope for his future and feeling incapable of continuing, Nick stands upon a cliff-top ready to jump.  However, the sight of a wildly out of control horse being ridden bareback by a beautiful young woman is enough to convince him he still has reason to live.  The passionate connection between Nick and the young woman, Sacha, becomes the focal point of the narrative and leads Nick to re-evaluate his life at its most fundamental levels.

The narrative is beautifully crafted and avoids the clichés typically associated with the genre.  The ending contains a satisfying twist that is at once poignant and in retrospect, somewhat inevitable.  For me, the inclusion of animals was particularly satisfying – Oliver the cat and Marillion the nervy ex-racehorse are as much the stars of the piece as Nick and Sasha.  I also found the tentative friendship between Nick and another train crash survivor, Matthew Levin, an effective addition, which showcased the depths of Nick’s compassion and offered both men a chance to heal.

This novel would work really well for book groups and with that in mind, the following questions could be used as discussion points:

  1. To what extent are fate and destiny explored in the novel?
  2. What are Nick’s heroic qualities and how are they evidenced by his words and through his actions?
  3. Are there conflicts between the words and actions of characters in the novel?
  4. Nick’s first glimpse of Sasha is incredibly symbolic.  Discuss the manner in which St John introduces her to the audience.
  5. What does this novel have to tell us about love?
  6. Redemption and reinvention are strong themes in the novel.  How are they explored by St John?
  7. How do you feel about the conclusion of the narrative?
  8. Why do animals have such an important role in the novel?
  9. What did you think of St John’s writing style and narrative construction?
  10. What importance does location and setting play in the novel?
  11. What are our preconceptions of obituaries and obituary writers and how does St John allude and perhaps subvert these in the novel?

Of course, if anyone would like to discuss the book with me on the blog as a kind of on-line book group, I’d be more than happy to do so.  I’ve included the link to Lauren St John’s website here, so you can have a look at her bio and other work.  She has written a number of books for children and The Obituary Writer is her first novel written for adults.  I very much look forward to her next!


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