Gilda, a twenty-something, atheist, animal-loving lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind, she responds to a leaflet for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist, Grace.
In between trying to memorize the lines to Catholic mass and hiding the fact that she has a new girlfriend, Gilda strikes up an email correspondence with a kindly old friend of Grace’s who is trying to reach her through the church inbox. Unable to bring herself to break the bad news, Gilda begins impersonating Grace via email instead. But when the police discover suspicious circumstances surrounding Grace’s death, Gilda may have to finally reveal the truth of her mortifying existence.
First published: 2021
One thing about me is that I am terrified of death. Well, that just set the tone, didn’t it? It’s an important bit of context for this review, though. I’ve been afraid of death since I was about five, and the thought that one day I will die has caused many a panic attack throughout the years, even after several stints of therapy.
So, when my boyfriend gave me Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin as a birthday gift last year, I was momentarily confused, in an “are you for real?” kind of way. He quickly went on to explain that this is supposed to be a very funny book and he’d bought it in the hopes it would be cathartic to read about a main character who is as scared of death as I am, which actually turned this into a really thoughtful gift. After reading the back, I agreed that it would probably be quite a confronting but also potentially hilarious read.
I was right about the confronting bit. The hilarious part not so much.
This book is basically the story of a woman spiraling further and further into her depression without any kind of support to help her back out of it. Her parents are awful, her brother has his own issues, she doesn’t have any friends and the healthcare system doesn’t take her seriously. She’s dating a girl she really likes, but she isolates herself because of her depression, distancing herself from the one person that brings her joy. And then there’s the Catholic church she accidentally starts to work for. The church that doesn’t know who she really is and that hands out flyers about homosexuality being a sin. Sounds like a safe work environment for an atheist lesbian, right?
The thing that gets me is that I’m not sure what the author’s intention was with this book. Was the emphasis supposed to be on the humour or on the bleakness of Gilda’s existence? Was it supposed to be a darkly funny yet profound story or a deep dive into one young woman’s mental state? Both of those things could make for a good book, but they’re very different stories. This book is marketed as the first kind of story, with blurbs on the cover that say things like “laugh-out-loud funny” and a snappy synopsis on the back. What I got was the bleak, heartbreaking story of a woman who is so depressed that her house devolves into a mix of dirty dishes, broken appliances, and trash on the floor, with no one to help her clean up.
I’m not saying it was a bad book because it really wasn’t. There were even funny moments and, yes, I did laugh out loud once, so I guess the blurb wasn’t technically wrong. But the overall vibe was bleak. It’s an interesting exploration of depression and specifically the fear of dying. It’s raw, real and honest, and actually very well done. The story is told in a very fragmented style; short paragraphs that are rarely longer than a page and a half, anchored in the present day but jumping back and forth to her childhood and other times in her life as well. It’s a style that I often enjoy, and it worked well for this story too, since it really enhances the idea of being in Gilda’s mind.
The absurdity of her stumbling into a job at the Catholic church and striking up a correspondence while pretending to be a dead woman, and then becoming part of the investigation into that woman’s suspicious death had the potential of being very funny, but I didn’t think it worked well. I’d hoped Gilda’s correspondence with Rosemary would be a central part of the story and she’d find someone to share her problems with. But her emails to Rosemary only comprised a very small part of the book, and fooling an old woman made her feel infinitely worse about herself. The investigation into Grace’s death was the bleakest part of the story and made me think that maybe the intention of this book wasn’t for it to be funny at all.
The question I keep asking myself is this: would I have read this book if I’d known how dark it would be? The answer is: probably not. It was a difficult reading experience, but I don’t regret reading Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead. It’s a great debut – I just don’t think I was entirely the right audience for it.