The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is about how small decisions can have profound and unintended consequences, but how we can sometimes get a second chance.
On the way home from a dinner party, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions.
To outward appearances this seems to be a quirky, imaginative science fiction/fantasy mix and, although that’s part of it, the story actually has more layers and goes a lot deeper, exploring issues which include an alternative look at life after death, acceptance, awareness, hindsight and the concept of God.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead encompasses Lorna’s life before and after her death, in North Berwick, Edinburgh and in Heaven somewhere in space. On the day of the London bombings in 2005, Lorna Love is hit by a car as she returns home after attending a dinner party. Lorna awakens in what she believes is a hospital, albeit a strange one. She doesn’t seem to be injured, no broken bones or even bruises despite her remembering one of the medics saying she had no pulse.
After several days Lorna is desperate to speak to a doctor and find out what’s going on. Irene, a Kate Winslet lookalike, is assigned to her and explains that, yes she is dead and is in Heaven. That is, HVN – a lost space ship, stranded and unable to get home, where those on board are brought there for a reason, captained by a slightly scruffy, bead wearing, goateed God.
Irene drew back the heavy curtains to reveal a large observation window, through which Lorna looked out on the vastness of space. A hundred metres away, the same giant hull she had seen earlier, crystal walkways leading between here and there. On its flank in burning gold letters, HVN. It shone in a celestial fire, bathed in starlight from surrounding galaxies, the most breathtaking, impossibly large, and beautiful thing that Lorna had ever seen.
Lorna’s memories have deserted her and as she adjusts to her new ‘home,’ random objects and places which magically appear trigger memories, dreams and flashbacks of her life and the people in it. Some sad, some unpleasant, others more pleasing but all quite splintered, confusing and initially hard to hold on to. The slow process of regaining her memories shows Lorna’s development on her journey of self discovery, as she sees the impact and consequences of choices made, not only on herself but those around her. There is a particular purpose for her being in Heaven but she must recapture all her memories and reevaluate her life to complete the regeneration.
Written very well, Charlie Laidlaw employs a clever use of words. Laced with humour and colourful characters, the narration alternates between the present and past, switching suddenly (although there are asterisk page breaks) and in no particular chronological order, which took a little getting used to. Some sections felt longer than necessary and hindered the flow at times. I did enjoy the descriptions of life aboard HVN, where you could look like anyone you chose, meals served were always delicious concoctions of a person’s favourite foods and Trinity, all round provider, was always on hand to grant requests and fix any problems.
There’s a lot to get to grips with during the course of the story but overall The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is an imaginative, contemplative, poignant and sometimes challenging read which, in the main, I enjoyed.
I chose to read and review The Things We Learn When We’re Dead based on a copy of the book supplied by the author.
I was born in Paisley, central Scotland, which wasn’t my fault. That week, Eddie Calvert with Norrie Paramor and his Orchestra were Top of the Pops, with Oh, Mein Papa, as sung by a young German woman remembering her once-famous clown father. That gives a clue to my age, not my musical taste.
I was brought up in the west of Scotland (quite near Paisley, but thankfully not too close) and graduated from the University of Edinburgh. I still have the scroll, but it’s in Latin, so it could say anything.
I then worked briefly as a street actor, baby photographer, puppeteer and restaurant dogsbody before becoming a journalist. I started in Glasgow and ended up in London, covering news, features and politics. I interviewed motorbike ace Barry Sheene, Noel Edmonds threatened me with legal action and, because of a bureaucratic muddle, I was ordered out of Greece.
I then took a year to travel round the world, visiting 19 countries. Highlights included being threatened by a man with a gun in Dubai, being given an armed bodyguard by the PLO in Beirut (not the same person with a gun), and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa. What I did for the rest of the year I can’t quite remember.
Surprisingly, I was approached by a government agency to work in intelligence, which just shows how shoddy government recruitment was back then. However, it turned out to be very boring and I don’t like vodka martini.
Craving excitement and adventure, I ended up as a PR consultant, which is the fate of all journalists who haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize, and I’ve still to listen to Oh, Mein Papa.
I am married with two grown-up children and live in East Lothian.