Review: The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, by Charlie Laidlaw

Thanks and apologies in advance to Charlie Laidlaw before we start: he sent me this book a month or so ago, explaining that the book was a modern-day reworking of the Wizard of Oz, and asking me to review it. I jumped at the chance- and it’s taken a while, for various reasons, but I finally picked up the book last week.

It’s definitely an ambitious novel, weaving together themes of love, life and death and transporting them to a spaceship, where aspiring lawyer Lorna Love wakes up after a terrible accident. She’s dead, and she can’t remember how she got there, but things are quickly explained. The spaceship she’s in is Heaven, or HVN, where she’s been transported post-mortem: a ship adrift in space, captained by an ageing hippy, God, and staffed by people who look like Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, amongst other things.

This is our base as we go back through Lorna’s life and explore what brought her to this point, but of course the startling thing about the novel is its ambitious reworking of the ideas of Heaven and God. It’s fantastically unique, and I loved exploring the spaceship and finding out more about Laidlaw’s concept of Heaven, from the beaches to Lorna’s guide, the chain-smoking Irene. It’s a gently humorous portrait, and one I would have liked to spend more time in: most of the characters there, apart from God and Irene, are too one-sided to connect with properly so it would have been nice to flesh out the concept of Heaven a little more.

Lorna’s life is carefully and skillfully revealed to us over the course of the novel, as she remembers more about her past life and we in turn come to learn about her as a person. I liked her: she’s a strong character, with very human flaws and foibles, and I liked the way that Laidlaw draws together different parts of her life- her best friend’s father’s job, the death of her younger brother, her desire to make a difference in the world- to affect later decisions she makes.

Perhaps a little conveniently, what’s happening in the spaceship and her memories line up well and complement each other, and though this falls flat a few times- for instance, when she remembers her best friend Suzie being angry with her, which turns out to be a red herring- it makes for an absorbing read and one that serves up plenty of surprises along the way. Lorna is a funny and warm character, and she’s easy to engage with, which meant that I was definitely rooting for her by the end.

Overall, this book is a quirky, humorous look at life after death, and how the decisions we make in the past can affect our lives well into the future. Though it’s never made clear whether HVN is real or just a fever dream (which I preferred: the fever dream seemed a bit of a cop out) the story itself is engaging and tackles weighty topics with sensitivity and warmth. If you’re looking for a book that offers something different, this is it!

Book cover taken from Goodreads.


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