The Things We Learn When We’re Dead
by Charlie Laidlaw
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Length: 501 Pages
Release date: January 26, 2017
Publisher: Accent Press Ltd.
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.
I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Charlie Laidlaw for sending me this lovely book. All opinions are my own.
What a charming book, with a delightful mixture of the familiar and the strange! It took me a little while to get into this story, but once I did, it was clear it was well worth the time invested. The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is all about choices, memories, and love.
Is that what love is? Discovering a missing jigsaw piece and finding that it fits? Are we all born incomplete, compelled to search for the lost bits of us?
Lorna Love is rather untethered when she wakes up in a mysterious, hamster-infested “hospital” remembering next to nothing. Amnesia can sometimes seem terribly overdone as a plot device, but it worked quite well here and the in-universe explanation held up. Lorna finds that she is in a sort of afterlife, brought to Heaven, or HVN, by a group of aliens, and her memories will take some time to come back. The end result is that the reader discovers bits of Lorna’s life along with her as she remembers them, making it easy to step into her shoes and empathize.
The Wizard of Oz references help to keep us grounded in the familiar in the face of an unfamiliar setting, while also hinting at parallels between Lorna and Dorothy. With chapter titles such as “Tin Man,” “Scarecrow,” and “Rainbow,” the references are fun and hard to miss. Also similar to The Wizard of Oz, readers may spot similarities between the people Lorna encounters in HVN and those she’s left behind on earth. The overall effect is whimsical and dreamy.
Death had always seemed the ultimate full stop and, if an afterlife existed, it would be a place beyond understanding; a spirit domain of ascended souls, where nothing would resemble the mortal world.
There were only a few drawbacks to this book for me. As stated above, it did take me a while to get into it, but perhaps you’ll find yourself captivated from page one, and this was just me. The second was that there were frankly distracting number of comments about various characters’ weights throughout the story. Lorna Love apparently has no love for fat people.
This was a lovely retelling of The Wizard of Oz with a modern, science fiction twist. Laidlaw has written an engaging story about choices – what kind of person to be, what kind of person to love, and whether or not to go on in the face of the unknown.
Thank you for reading! Have you read The Things We Learn When We’re Dead? Do you have a favorite novel that’s a retelling of another story? Please discuss in the comments!