#BookReview - The Things We Learn When We're Dead by Charlie Laidlaw

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy meets The Lovely Bones in this surrealist, sci-fi comedy. 

On the way home from a dinner party she didn't want to attend, 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.

It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident. Or does God have a higher purpose after all?

At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decisions to make and that she needs to find a way home…

I was intrigued when Charlie Laidlaw contacted me to ask if I'd like to read The Things We Learn When We're Dead and explained that essentially, it’s a modern reworking for an adult readership of The Wizard of Oz - not least because it was my eldest daughter's favourite film when she was growing up, and her name is Lorna!
I'm very glad I was tempted because I really enjoyed this ambitious, clever novel. Although inspired by L. Frank Baum's classic it is a very different book, far from a straightforward retelling. Lorna dies early in the book, on the same day at the 7/7 bombings, one of the themes of the book is the mess humanity is making of the world, and how religions and belief in a god can be so destructively twisted. It's also about how a life can be knocked out of shape, the cumulative effects of different experiences perhaps contributing to changing a person. When Lorna finds herself in Heaven, or HVN, she is forced to recall her past and through flashbacks we learn about her childhood and early adulthood, eventually leading to the point where she stepped off the pavement. I particularly enjoyed how the author didn't take a linear line here, some events we learn a little of, then the gaps are filled in later.
Lorna is a very ordinary young woman, she is a likeable character yet isn't a saintly victim, some of her actions and decisions are unwise at best and this makes her fate all the more interesting. As she recalls her history with her parents, friends, lovers and co-workers, the highs and the lows, she wonders what God has planned for her. Like Dorothy Gale she needs to decide whether her life as she knows it is enough.
Although sometimes a poignant novel - Lorna has experienced her fair share of disappointments and tragedies, this is a book that's brimming with humour. From her cohabitees on Heaven choosing to look like various celebrities - 'For example after Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Hugh Grant was quite a popular look', to the hamsters causing havoc to the spaceship - especially to this particular Trinity -  the author has ensured that, despite the sombre premise, this is far from a depressing book. This is especially true when it comes to some of the other characters, particularly Lorna's best friend Suzie, and Irene, the Kate Winslet lookalike assigned to look after her. Neither could be considered sensitive or obviously nurturing, yet their sharp wit ensures they are both vibrant, memorable characters and in different ways vital to Lorna's life - and death.
Although the description of The Things We Learn When We're Dead may suggest science-fiction, this is actually a book that takes a fantastical idea to examine the very human conditions of regret, redemption and second chances. Intelligently plotted throughout, I may have been tempted by the Wizard of Oz comparison but it was the moving, funny and thoughtful writing that kept me engrossed. Refreshingly different yet all too relatable; I thoroughly recommend it.

The Things We Learn When We're Dead is published by Accent Press. My grateful thanks to the author for my copy, which I chose to read and review. Charlie's website is here and he can be found on Twitter as @claidlawauthor. Accent Press are on Twitter as @AccentPress.

About the Author

Charlie Laidlaw was born in Paisley and is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. He has been a national newspaper journalist and worked in defence intelligence. He now runs his own marketing consultancy in East Lothian. He is married with two grown-up children. He has written two novels,  The Herbal Detective (Ringwood Publishing) and The Things We Learn When We’re Dead (Accent Press).  A third novel, Dark Matters, is due to be published by Accent Press in January 2018.


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