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?
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.
This is one of those books that I could talk for hours and hours about as Laidlaw packs so much into it in such an elegant way. It is a book that I need other people to read because I just need to talk about it! It is a book that I feel will one day be taught in university or high school classes – I took a module in Contemporary Fiction during my English Literature degree and this title would have fit into the reading list perfectly – as there are so many relevant themes and messages within it, such as terrorism, class, race and identity. I’m sure I could read this again and again and each time take something new from it or notice something important that I missed before. I was lucky enough to receive a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review and what a pleasure it is when your honest opinion is one of complete positivity and admiration.
Despite being so packed with these afore-mentioned important themes and messages, the structure of this book makes it easy to follow and not rushed in any way. The book begins in medias res as we are almost immediately confronted with the death of the central character, Lorna Love. Lorna then wakes up in Heaven (or a spaceship called HVN) and attempts to navigate her way around these new surroundings. As she does this, she goes through a process called “regeneration”, which is the gradual return of her memories from her life before. The novel, therefore, constantly shifts between life on HVN and flashbacks to her life on Earth but in a way that is easy to follow and is cleverly intertwined as the two explain each other. This means that we learn about who Lorna Love is and what she has been through at the same time as she does and we are brought closer to the character through this shared experience.
I was extremely impressed (and surprised) by the setting of this novel – HVN. It has clearly been conceived by an intelligent mind and illustrated wonderfully on the page. As the book progresses, we learn more and more about HVN – where it is, why it exists and if it is the real ‘Heaven’ we talk about ourselves. I could write an entire thesis on how this is done and what I believe to be going on but 1. SPOILERS and 2. it’s not really important. In fact, when Lorna questions whether her entire experience there has been a “dream”, God says, “if you say so,” and tells her to believe what she wants to believe (92%). In other words, the most important part of the story is not where she is – whether she is in Heaven, dreaming, between life and death, etc. The meaningful part of this book is what she learns from it and the messages that are communicated along the way.
The ending of this book is one of hope, opening up a world of possibility. It is one I struggled with originally as I am one of those people that likes everything tied up neatly with a bow at the end – for example, I’m that person who will not be happy if we do not actually see the lovers being reunited a the end of the movie, even if we know they will be eventually. However, the open-ended nature of this book is crucial to the story as a whole, meaning I was able to get on board with it and appreciate what Laidlaw was doing. He uses the ending to illustrate how we, as individuals, have the power to change our path in life (obviously this is within reason, depending on the circumstances we are born into). Throughout her journey, Lorna learns that she could have made better choices in her life and improved it herself. We are left with a challenging question – if we could go through the process Lorna has, seeing our mistakes for what they were and how we could make our life better, would we take that chance? Or, more poignantly, should we really need this experience? Can we learn from Lorna’s and make a change here and now to make our lives better?
I loved this book, the beautiful writing and the issues it exposed. Have you read it? Are you adding it to your TBR? Let me know in the comments below!