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

What happens when you’re dead? Well, that depends a lot on who you ask. In “The Things We Learn When We’re Dead”, Lorna Love finds out, in a manner of speaking, when she wakes up on a ship called the Hyperspace Vehicular Navigator: HVN for short…


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Published: 26 January 2017

Publisher: Accent Press Ltd

Category: Literary Fiction

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.

Rating: 3 Stars

CW: scenes dealing with unplanned pregnancy/abortion, anti-fat character attitudes scattered throughout

The Things We Learn We When We’re Dead begins in Lorna’s present, actually before we learn she’s Lorna, and continues through to her afterlife, such as it is, in HVN (Heaven). The novel is then told in something resembling alternating “perspectives”, going back to Lorna’s memories. They’re not exactly flashbacks, because they don’t start in Lorna’s current time and proceed backward, thus fulfilling their name.

The relevant scenes, such as that of Lorna’s birth and stories relating to her family, are more like exposition scenes meant for the reader’s benefit. This storytelling method creates a slightly disconnected feeling. There’s a lack of linearity regarding the memories, which isn’t necessarily a negative, but it disrupted the flow of the story when I tried to orient myself the different characters and where they fit in.

I understood, while reading, that this might have been in an effort to make the reader relate to Lorna remembering things disjointedly, explained to her in Heaven as part of her regeneration, but in attempting to make it more relatable, it actually became more difficult, thus less satisfying. There’s also the manner of separating the memory and current time sections. There weren’t totally distinct chapters, rather there might have been many sub-instances of memory-current-memory within the same chapter. Going back and forth like that was a bit rough for me.

Heaven, or HVN, as a setting was such an odd place. The concept of it being both an idea (what religions think) and a place (a spaceship of a far off species that’s been stranded half a light year from Earth) wasn’t difficult to grasp. The place itself was odd in its essential breadth and inherent creepiness. It’s everything an inhabitant could ever want and this is apparently supposed to be a big selling point (just think it and it can be yours!), down to any food or experience such as lamb cutlets or high end shipping. However, along with the eternity of life is the fact that brains can’t cope with all those memories so you will forget everything eventually, even the people you loved, and the fact that because no upset is allowed in Heaven, mood controlling drugs (likened to Diazepam) are pumped into the air supply. To be honest, it made Heaven feel rather like a cult to me while I was reading.

I felt a bit ambivalent about the pacing of the book. While it’s a not a terribly long novel (around 400 pages according to Amazon), as I was reading my e-copy, it felt longer due to the manner in which it was written (particularly the jumps I mentioned earlier) as well as the long windiness of some portions. The first 30-40%, for example, is just so heavy on explanation and seemingly pointless memories that I was quite bored. There was some social commentary early on that I thought might be interesting if it went somewhere, but then Lorna died and the “action” became all about how Heaven works, what she was meant to do with this new “life”, and so on. I spent so much time waiting for something to happen.

The characters themselves, who might have alleviated some of this boredom in the meantime, weren’t particularly likable. Lorna was a bit blase but at least her memories started to introduce some depth to her as things went on. This wasn’t always a good thing, as she started out with some characteristics that I wasn’t too keen on and her memories didn’t really reassure me. Irene was not someone I liked at all. She pontificated, she judged, all the acting as though it were the right way to be and Lorna’s personality was to be disregarded in the face of a new Heaven life, as if memories were garbage. She really rubbed me the wrong way, let’s say.

The ending…oh dear, what can I say about that? I was shaking my head toward the end because I thought things were getting sorted and, as best as I can figure out, it all basically boils down to The Wizard of Oz all over again only the hamsters didn’t get to talk. The revelation of what Lorna’s situation was, the conclusion of this book, honestly just made me want to throw up my hands in frustration. It felt like I’d spent quite a lot of hours slogging through some dense text and the payoff at the end wasn’t up to snuff.

I’d venture that I might try this author’s work again, but not in this series. There wasn’t anyone in this book I’d care to know more about.




I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

All media (pictures, quotes, etc.) belong to the respective owners and are used here solely for the purpose of review and commentary.


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