Now I’m dead, it’s time to grow up
I must admit that the premise of Charlie Laidlaw’s The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, was incredibly imaginative and one I would consider, not so much an amalgamation of the sci-fi genre with a sprinkling of fantasy, but more of a literary work of fiction. However, before I get to the body of this review, I should note that I don’t quite know how I feel about this novel yet. This may seem strange, and it is to me honestly, but my stance on whether I enjoyed this book or not, remains on the precipice. I am hoping that once I conclude this review, I will also come to a conclusion.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead explores the narrative of a young woman named Lorna Love on her journey of and through, what I would describe, a sort of ‘in-limbo’. Studying to be a lawyer, Lorna is what you would call a firmly rational woman who believes in only what she sees. She is an idealist, with solid ethical and moral values, but she finds herself disconnected from her own life. On her way home from a Christmas event, at the law firm she will be working at in the future, Lorna becomes the victim of an unfortunate car accident. What occurs in the aftermath is Lorna’s journey in the semi-afterlife. The synopsis of The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is as follows, and can be found on GoodReads:
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.
It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN, because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the ageing hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident… or does God have a higher purpose after all?
In HVN, Lorna can at first remember nothing. But as her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decisions to make and that, maybe, she can find a way back home.
Set mostly in the direct aftermath of the London bombings in July of 2007, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead considers the effects of personal memories on the development of a person’s understanding of themselves and of their purpose. As the readers, we are also taken on the journey alongside Lorna as her memory regenerates whilst existing within a sort-of alien spaceship which houses God. The HVN spacecraft is a facility that has become the Heaven, where eternal life is found. This is where Lorna’s understanding of the world undergoes a complete metamorphosis. See, God hails from another planet – Arthuria, to be exact – and the purpose of the space facility was originally meant for a research mission that was supposed to last only a few months, but which instead, lasted for thousands of years. Earth, to God the commander of the facility, reminded him and his people of their own planet; and God, could not in good conscience let the Human race fail because of diseases that he could easily aid in curing. Thus, worship in one God occurred. In this sense, God is only immortal because he continues to live on the HVN craft and in fact, those who choose to go to Earth to reside in, live a mortal life.
Lorna’s existence on the HVN is shrouded in mystery and intrigue for the better part of the entire novel. But the HVN is not really the setting of the narrative, more so, it acts as a mediator for Lorna’s memories. Really, this novel acts as a testament to the impactful nature of hindsight and the gift that is having a second chance. The reader experiences events in Lorna’s life that somehow impacted the way she perceived the world, her family, her friends, and of course, herself. It is a philosophical journey, that is meant to also render you in a reflective state, but also be invested in the growing up of Lorna. The interactions between Lorna, God and God’s second in command, Irene, is much more placed in the background as the main focus of the overall plot is Lorna’s past relationships and how these have created what she had become.
I do have to admit that I quite liked the small salutes to the sci-fi greats, such as Doctor Who, Star Trek and Star Wars throughout the narrative.
As Lorna really is the central character and possibly the only character that is actually given depth, I will focus mostly on her. I have to be honest, Lorna Love is not a character that I enjoyed reading. To be quite frank, she lost me quite early on in the narrative. I found her personality quite off-putting but I do believe this characterisation was a decision made quite deliberately by the author, Charlie Laidlaw. Lorna Love is a character that is not without her flaws; she is selfish, narrow-minded, quite possibly racist, fatphobic and still quite childlike. She is very ordinary and again, it is meant to be this way to demonstrate how the ordinariness of life can quickly change to the extraordinariness of the idea of an afterlife.
I think that Lorna’s character brought to life a vessel in which any reader could find themselves possessing as her relatability was universal. Within her, you could find yourself and many others and I find that being able to write a character as such, takes extreme sophistication and talent. However, I did find the way Lorna was written slightly questionable – in that, there was a disconnect in how Laidlaw wrote Lorna. Lorna and her relationship with her best friend, for instance, is what I would consider how female relationships are perceieved to be. Her friendship with her best friend, Suzie, was full of envy, competitiveness and judgement. Female friendships are usually stereotyped as such but reality showcases something different – for example, there was an instant within the story where Lorna claims that she can’t trust Suzie to be alone with her boyfriend in her short dress, just in case Suzie makes a move on him. This is quite an unhealthy friendship and one that I could not connect with either. There is another example, one that I really found issue with, and that was the scenes depicting Lorna’s loss of ‘virginity’. Now, in this case, her loss of virginity was literally illustrated as a sign that Lorna was finally a woman, described as a milestone that she needed to reach adulthood. More so, Lorna was actually quite reluctant to have sex with Austin (the ‘virginity-taker’), to the point that she needed to get drunk to even contemplate such an action. I found this to be extremely strange and I honestly believe that if you, as a man or a woman, need to drink alcohol to even consider the possibility of having sex with someone, maybe don’t do it and think about it with a clear mind in the morning. It was a strange scene, I must admit.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead was a sophisticated piece of work which demonstrated the talent of the author, Charlie Laidlaw. Although this novel did not engage me to the extent that I wanted it to, I do believe that many people will enjoy such a novel as it really is a story that makes the reader consider their life journey and reflect on who we are and what we would do differently, if we were given a second chance. The philosophical aspect of this novel was one that was executed quite wonderfully, and it did allow me a moment in which I began to consider my present, my past and my future. As such, I would give The Things We Learn When We’re Dead by Charlie Laidlaw a 3 out of 5 stars. I also want to take the time and express my gratitude and appreciation to Charlie Laidlaw himself, for giving me the opportunity to read and review his book!
That’s it for now, my friends! Until next time, happy reading!