Book Review: The Things We Learn When We’re Dead

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, by Charlie Laidlaw, tells the story of a young women named Lorna Love. She has just completed her final year studying law at Edinburgh University and been offered a training job at one of the city’s top corporate law firms. On the evening of 7 July 2005, having attended a difficult dinner party at the house of her future boss, she steps in front of a car outside her flat. Dimly aware of the arrival of paramedics – who cannot find a pulse – she wakes up in a bland, white room that looks nothing like the hospital expected. She is told that she has been assigned to Irene, a chain smoking, Kate Winslet lookalike. It is Irene’s job to tell Lorna that she is dead and that God has chosen her to live eternally in heaven. There is more to be explained but this must wait until Lorna’s memories have returned. With the trauma of regeneration, this could take some time. Time, it turns out, is the one thing residents of heaven have rather too much of. God tries hard to provide novel forms of entertainment but all become wearisome after many centuries with the prospect of an endless future.

Lorna’s memories start to filter through and form the bones of the story. She was born and raised in Berwick where she lived in a flat with her brother and parents. At school she met Suzie who remained her best friend – they shared the rented flat in Edinburgh. Money was tight for the Loves whereas Suzie’s parents were wealthy, her lawyer father driving a Porsche that Lorna greatly admired. The girls shared all their secrets – including the details of sexual encounters. Suzie was not the most discrete confidante.

The reader learns early that, at the time of her accident, Lorna was unhappy and on medication. There is mention of an ex-boyfriend who she regrets sleeping with after their breakup.

Memories from childhood reveal a valued family holiday on the Norfolk Broads where Lorna watched Star Wars – her favourite movie since. Flashbacks suggest there are shadows flickering behind some of her happier recollections – the most difficult of these taking longer to coalesce.

Alongside dealing with what was her life, Lorna must learn to adapt to heaven. Trinity, the helpful on board computer, creates simulations that she hopes will make heaven’s residents days more pleasant. There are shops where they may help themselves to the most expensive designer clothes and accessories. There are beaches where they may swim and indulge in delicious refreshments. All of these turn out to be a reflection of Lorna’s life experiences. There is a subtle undercurrent of unreliability.

God made man in his own image, and heaven’s residents change the way they look regularly – many adopting the bodies of celebrities. Irene is bossy and suggests Lorna too may wish to change – she remains unconvinced. Suzie was widely regarded as a beauty but Lorna seemed to cope with being her sidekick. There is an admirable strength to her work ethic and determination.

I enjoyed the way the author portrayed heaven – the world building woven in to Lorna’s unfolding life story and the concerns this brings. There are subtle glitches that caused me to flick back to check previous reveals. Continuity is handled skilfully.

Memories are known to be fluid, transient and unreliable. The questions the reader will ask do not affect flow or engagement. I couldn’t warm to Irene’s arrogance, her constant smoking an irritation. I wondered if Lorna could recognise their likenesses. I pondered how Suzie could eat so many buttered bread rolls and still find work as a model. This may be jealousy on my part (the bread rolls, not the modelling).

This is a fun to read story despite several tragedies along the way. Its handling of the famous – those who contributed particularly to human understanding thereby aiding progress – was inventive. The denouement was perhaps just a little drawn out but still clever. An enjoyable and original read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Silken Rose

Hilary Mantel raised the bar for historical fiction when she wrote Wolf Hall. For readers who do not get on with her style of prose there are respected writers such as Alison Weir telling immersive stories of monarchy from times of old. And there are many other fine authors – it is a popular genre. The intrigues and extravagances of courtly life, along with the challenges faced by those living beyond palace walls, offer a window into times it would otherwise be hard to imagine given contemporary culture.

The Silken Rose, by Carol McGrath, focuses on Ailenor of Provence. In 1236, aged just thirteen years of age, she travelled to England where she married King Henry III. In this tale they fall in love and she gains power through her carefully managed influence on her husband and several of his courtiers. She is described as a beauty and produces healthy children. Henry is often fickle but she mostly handles his tempers. The English aristocracy of the time resent the royal couple’s nepotism. Perceived changes of allegiance can prove dangerous.

The portrayal of these medieval monarchs is one of vanity and entitlement. Both King and Queen believe they hold office by the will of God. They resent any argument or interference from powerful and rich lords, yet require these men’s monetary support to maintain their lifestyle and settle disputes. The church is also a factor as favours need to be bought.

All of this, along with the day to day habits of those living within and serving the royal household as it moves from palace to palace throughout the land and abroad is well portrayed in the story. There are nuggets of interest in the accepted customs. And yet the telling came across as a roll call of significant events populated by two dimensional characters. Ailenor, as the central figure, evoked little emotion. It is mentioned in places that she cried or was happy but her actions rarely reflect feeling other than a desire to keep Henry on side.

A merchants daughter, Rosalind, gains favour from the Queen for her exquisite embroidery. This friendship, and its repercussions, seemed far removed from other portrayals of ruthless, historic rulers.

The Silken Rose offers harmony with only brief mentions of potentially unhappy marriages or fickle friendship. At a time when positions were brokered for power or money, when marriages were forged to produce heirs and alliances, I struggled to believe there would be so much lasting loyalty over decades of lived experience and resulting change. When characters face difficulties, reasoning is skimmed over in the prose.

Dialogue provides exposition but offers little depth. Much is mentioned but little explored.

For readers looking for a nice story with added historical interest this may well be enjoyed. I found it bland and should probably have stopped reading when it became obvious the writing style wasn’t for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Accent.