To get started, this book takes place in some nebulous past, which could just as easily be a completely different world. It doesn't talk much about the time period, but Martine Leavitt—the oh so talented author—mentions 1) the plague and 2) serfdom. Both suggest that this story occurs during the Middle Ages.
The story starts out focusing on 16-year-old Keturah as she lies dying in the snow. Then we meet death—Lord Death—who is beautiful and stern and otherworldly. He arrives to take Keturah away on his black horse. Instead they strike a bargain, and Keturah must find her true love within a matter of days or go with Death.
Without giving anything away, it's amazing how Keturah changes over the course of a few days. She learns more about herself in those few days then she did all the years before. This book is written like a fairy tale, but it delves into deeper issues, ideas of love and death and courage. Keturah finds out what's important and what's worth fighting for. She also learns not to fear death, that it is a dear intimate and a friend and only a step in a much larger journey.
I adore Lord Death. His motivations are so elusive. Why does he strike a deal with Keturah? It's within his power to take her at the beginning, yet he breathes life into her and waits. And each day he holds out judgement and gives her time. But once in a while Leavitt allows you a glimpse of this being, a look into a lonely, wistful soul. It's fascinating.
I'm almost as enamored with Leavitt's writing as I am with the story itself. The writing is lyrical and haunting and beautiful. Although this book was published in 2006, it has the timbre of classical works, with melodious phrases and profound quotes that you just have to highlight (and I do). One such quote spoken by Lord Death: "Each man, when he dies, sees the landscape of his own soul" (715 of 740—sorry, I only have the digital version). This is a seriously fascinating theological idea. Here's another favorite quote: "In this suffering she found the best sort of perfection—the kind that never demands it of others" (730 of 740).
This is my very favorite quote because although nobody alive can know for sure what if feels like to die, I think this must be close:
"Tell me what it is like to die."
"You experience something similar every day," he said softly. "It is as familiar to you as bread and butter."
"Yes," I said. "It is like every night when I fall asleep."
"No. It is like every morning when you wake up.""It's like every morning when you wake up." Those words just give be goosebumps. It feels true.
This book has all the qualities I love in great literature: captivating, interesting, funny, well-written, beautiful, and profound. Read it. You'll love it.