This is a brave novel, juggling the BIG questions with a confident voice. Laidlaw gives us a double narrative: we follow Lorna Love’s story, with her life as a Law student in Edinburgh, and all the people she loves, works with, and loses, and we also have Lorna’s ‘afterlife’ sections – something the reader has been prepared for with Laidlaw’s title – in which she struggles with the concept of her own demise and her strong desire to return to those she loves. The fact that the first chapter is called ‘End’ quickly establishes the fact Laidlaw is going to enjoy challenging the conventions and asking his reader to take a leap with him. It is down to the high quality of his writing that taking such a jump is so easy to do. You know you’re in safe hands.
Lorna, with all her frustrations and desires, makes for a compelling protagonist. There is a good deal of warm humour in Laidlaw’s work, not least when he’s writing about Lorna’s part-time job at Happy Mart, but he also handles the more difficult periods of Lorna’s life very sensitively. I particularly loved the way the way he dealt with the relationship with her parents. Lorna isn’t always nice about those around her, but her desire to make a difference in the world, set alongside her conflicting envy of those who have more comfortable lives, makes her very real. In this respect, she makes for an excellent character to follow, but is not necessarily different from so many others. However, the allusions to the Wizard of Oz add a sense of a quest to her story, a sense that all of Lorna’s experiences are going somewhere, and these, together with the ‘Afterlife’ sections (my term for the sections which explore Lorna’s experiences after she dies), make Lorna and this novel unique and memorable.
Laidlaw’s ‘afterlife’ sections are both very clever and very amusing, walking the fine line between a rich and quirky sci-fi imagination and the use of such a setting to ask fundamental questions about what it is to be human and make choices. This is perhaps where Laidlaw is at his most daring – it’s a clever idea and one he carries off with confidence. There’s also a good line about David Beckham.
I loved this novel – it is very clever in its construction and rewards a close reading. I’m already waiting for his next novel.
Thanks to the author for a copy of The Things We Learn When We’re Dead in exchange for an honest review.