I’ve been reading and reviewing a lot of crime fiction lately most of which is written using short, punchy prose which drives events along – the literary version of the Motown mogul Berry Gordy’s instructions to his songwriters, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”. It’s a style which suits the substance, but, and this may just be me, as I began reading Charlie Laidlaw’s The Things We Learn When We’re Dead I found I needed a period of readjustment in terms of pace. There was some initial impatience as to who people were and what drove them. If you ever find this happening then this may work for you as well. Pour yourself a drink, find the most comfortable chair in the house, take a deep breath, and relax.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead turned out to be the perfect novel with which to take this approach as it is a pleasure to spend time in the possible worlds Laidlaw creates. It is book which marries real life and fantasy in a manner not dissimilar to Iain Banks’ The Bridge and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark with the story split between Earthly memories and another place, one which may, or may not, be a figment of the central character’s imagination or psyche. In Laidlaw’s novel, HVN is a place just above Earth – a damaged spaceship where Edinburgh lawyer Lorna Love finds herself after her untimely and ambiguous death. As with The Bridge’s Alexander Lennox and Lanark’s Duncan Thaw, Lorna is trying to make sense of her life in what could be a dreamland, although one initially less dystopian than theirs. She has been chosen by God for reasons she has yet to understand, and which he will not divulge. In HVN God is not only male, but an ageing hippy who, while he captains the ship, may not be as in charge as he believes.
Another author I was reminded of was Douglas Adams as Laidlaw has the same attention to detail mixed with absurdity, particularly in his depiction of life aboard HVN. This is a ship where everyone is famous, or rather is someone famous depending on who they choose to look like. Lorna has to adapt to life aboard this celestial vessel of multiple Sean Connerys, Kate Winslets, Hugh Grants and a rather insistent Bill Clinton. It’s a place where, as many would wish heaven to be, your every whim is catered for, in this case by a faceless yet comforting presence named Trinity. It’s the sort of place where you can find out ‘Ten Things You May Or May Not Know About Hamsters’ to help pass eternity and be glad of it.
As Lorna’s memories begin to return we spend less time in HVN and more back on Earth, although the former is there to help her better understand the latter, providing her with exact replicas of the places she knew from her childhood and later life – places with significant meaning. As Lorna begins to reflect on her life she finds love and regret are to the fore. Questions are posed about what drives an individual to act as they do – is it nature, nurture or, is it, in this specific case, somehow part of God’s greater plan? If it’s the latter then he keeps that plan well hidden, not least from Lorna herself.
It’s less a case of Lorna regretting nothing, as we are often told should be the case, more that the wish to have done differently is overwhelming. Chances not taken, decisions made for the wrong reasons, things never said, and words which can never be taken back – these all cross Lorna’s mind as she tries to make sense of her old-life and how, and why, it has brought her to God’s attention. It also asks the reader some interesting and potentially uncomfortable questions. Would you do it all again if you could? If we’re honest with ourselves there are surely at least some things we would do differently given a second chance.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is a delightful novel, one which touches upon philosophy and metaphysics as well as sociopolitical considerations, but never beats you around the head with any of them. This is partly down to Laidlaw’s gentle yet insistent sense of humour, which means that the serious points he makes catch you unaware and are all the more powerful for it. Just as Lorna Love has to face up to accepting the reasons for acting as she did were less noble, benevolent and altruistic than she may have believed at the time, it will have you reflecting on your own past, present and possible future. It may not change your life, but it might make you think twice, and you can’t ask much more from a novel than that.