This cover design wasn't used for the U.S. edition, but it's lovely!
What if death was no longer a fact of life? In an unnamed country, the unthinkable happens: no one dies. Initial jubilation about eternal life gives way to a great deal of fretting and machinations by a variety of groups, ranging from undertakers, government officials, religious leaders, and nursing-home operators. None of these folks escape being skewered by Saramago's sharp eye and keener prose; he loves showing how fallible and self-serving such institutions can be. Meanwhile, families face the tough choice of letting the once-terminally ill linger on indefinitely, neither getting better nor worse, or crossing the border in secrecy to let the ill meet death.
Speaking of meeting death - one of the best parts of this novel is that we readers get to meet death, too. Saramago's characterization of death (small d, please, she takes that seriously) is tender and whimsical. death likes to send all of her important correspondence on violet stationery, talks to her scythe, and makes impulsive decisions.
This is the third book of Saramago's that I've read. The first book was "All the Names," which holds a special place as one of my all-time favorite novels. Then I struggled through "Blindness," which took multiple attempts to complete. It seems that's one of his more popular novels, but stories about apocalypse/utter breakdowns of society really unsettle me. One event in that novel, in particular, horrified me so much that I'd stop reading there. It's not a novel that I want to reread, but I am interested in exploring his other works.
Saramago's writing style takes a little bit of adjustment; he eschews quotation marks and embraces long sentences. I ended up reading the first several dozen pages out loud to myself and found that it really helped me get into the story. Reading out loud was particularly helpful when untangling dialogue. His books are not breezy beach reads, but if you enjoy reading slowly and carefully, a bit at a time, Saramago will make you laugh, wince in recognition, think, feel deeply, and wonder.
I was working on a favorite books of 2012 post as the year wrapped up, but then the stomach superbug hit our household at New Year's, and the post has been languishing in my drafts. Guess I'm not giving up procrastination after all this year ... but I'll be posting it before the month ends. (Because I'm just an early birdy like that ... )