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 aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident… or does God have a higher purpose after all?
Despite that, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is neither sci-fi nor fantasy. It is a book about memory and how, if we could remember things slightly differently, would we also be changed?
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.
The Things We Learn When We're Dead was published by Accent Press on 26th January 2017. You can purchase it from Waterstones, Amazon and other good bookshops.
I was intrigued by the blurb for this one as soon as I saw it. And also by the author revealing there was a nod to the Wizard of Oz in his writing. First of all, I love the cover - it's fun and funky - but don't let the rocket mislead you into thinking this is a sci-fi story. There's a bit of that, but that's not what this book is about.
This is an original story - I certainly had never read anything like it before. On the day of the 7/7 bombings in London, young trainee lawyer Lorna is knocked over by a car in Edinburgh. She wakes up in Heaven, which turns out to be a spaceship. Lorna doesn't meet many of the crew, but she meets the captain, a tracksuited, ponytailed God, and his assistant, the wonderfully irreverent Irene.
Lorna is understandably confused and unnerved. How can this be Heaven when it's a spaceship? Why is she there? can she get back home? Nobody will tell her - God just says there is a reason. Lorna has no memories when she arrives, but begins to remember things after a while, slowly at first but then they come tumbling back quicker.
The story jumps between scenes on the spaceship and Lorna's memories, some recent, some from her childhood. You do need to keep focussed to follow everything, but we learn about Lorna's life through these memories. Her parents, her brother, early family holidays, her best friend Suzie, part time job, past loves. This was a brilliant way to look at Lorna. We see she's not perfect, but I found her very real, and beautifully described. Her colleagues at the HappyMart are a colourful bunch, and best friend Suzie is an absolute hoot and is one of my favourite characters.
The other character I particularly enjoyed was Irene, who looks after Lorna when she first arrives in Heaven (or HVN, to be more accurate). She's fabulous, and I had a really clear picture of her in my mind.
I've found this hard to review, without giving away anything. It's a unique way to explore someone's life, the decisions she makes and the effects they have. The whole time Lorna is trying to recover her memories, she has a feeling that Suzie was angry at her. She is also confused as God and Irene say that she walked in front of the car deliberately. She knows she wouldn't do that.
I can't say much more - you really need to read it for yourself. Charlie Laidlaw has written a funny, poignant tale of love, loss, friendship and second chances. I really enjoyed it, and have no hesitation in recommending it.
Charlie Laidlaw was born in the west of Scotland and is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. He has been a national newspaper journalist and worked in defence intelligence. He is married with two grown-up children. You can visit his website here.