Keturah and Lord Death
reads like a mix of One Thousand and One Nights
and a Robin McKinley fairytale retelling. However, I’d venture to say that there’s more character interaction here than in one of McKinley’s novels. Though this is a simple story and one that’s not entirely new, it does have charm. And it’s this charm that ultimately makes the book quite an enjoyable read.
The story begins with a group gathering, everyone desiring Keturah to tell a story. Leavitt does a good job convincing the reader that this is an oral tale. It’s plainly told, yet in a way that’s effective. Even though the phrasing is simple, the images and emotions that are evoked are quite strong with a few amusing details added here and there for that special effect. Also factoring into the oral nature of the story is the book’s length: a story that can easily be read in one sitting. Even though a small part of me did at times wish some parts were fleshed out, a longer novel would have made this particular story element less believable.
However, like all fairytales, there’s not much room for character development. The characters are mostly caricatures, what we learn from them is mostly based on their actions and interactions with others. It’s outward deeds that matter, rather than inner reflection. But when done well, as is the case here, you can learn just as much about the inner workings and motivation of a character.
One line I especially like in the book is how Lord Death describes the afterlife: “There is no hell… each man, when he dies, sees the landscape of his own soul.” It reminds me of that phrase from Paradise Lost
when Satan talks about making a “heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” paired with that line about a man’s soul from The Rubayait of Omar Khayyam
: “I myself am Heaven and Hell.” When paired with these two quotes, Lord Death’s statement becomes a reflection of that epic journey we all face through our daily choices and lifestyle: that daily struggle over temptation and how it ultimately affects our soul—an idea I’ve always rather liked. I also like the first line of the book after the prologue, which has a double meaning. If you don’t happen to recognize it at first, it becomes especially noticeable when rereading it after finishing the novel. ;)
One aspect of this book, though, that bothers me is the choice of name for our heroine—“Keturah.” Every time I read her name, in the back of my mind I kept repeating “haute couture” which was followed up with a slight giggle. I mean the majority of the other characters’ names are quite ordinary—John, Gretta, Beatrice, Ben, etc.—the one exception, other than our heroine, is Padmoh, the girl cook. But when you consider the translation of the name Keturah—it’s a Hebrew name meaning incense—the choice doesn’t seem as strange….