Just occasionally you read a book you know you are going to remember for a long time to come. "The Things We Learn When We're Dead" by Charlie Laidlaw is one of those books. It's beautifully written and the central character, Lorna Love, is engaging and utterly believable. So what's it about? Lorna is in the final stages of her law degree in Edinburgh, and thanks to the father of her best friend Suzie she has been offered a job at a prestigious firm of solicitors in the city. In order to get to know her future colleagues better she is invited to a dinner party. On the way home she steps out in front of a car while crossing the road, and is killed.
Not many books could survive the death of its protagonist on page nine out of well over 400. "The Things We Learn When We're Dead" thrives on it. Lorna wakes up in what appears to be a hospital. It turns out that she has been transported to Heaven. Or rather to HVN, a spaceship that was severely damaged during an ill-judged faster-than-light manoeuvre thousands of years earlier and which has been lost in space and awaiting rescue, somewhere near Earth, ever since. HVN is crewed by extremely human-looking immortals, and captained by an ageing hippy-lookalike called God. Day to day operations are overseen by HVN's onboard computer Trinity, who is great at everything except suppressing the population of feral hamsters that infest the ship and eat through electrical cabling.
We've seen this book compared to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and can understand why: though it's a comparison that isn't really fair to either. "The Things We Learn..." isn't played just for laughs, though the parallel stories of Lorna's time on HVN and her past life in North Berwick and Edinburgh unfold in a way that is often amusing. Lorna comes to realise that she is one of very few humans who have ever been selected by God to move from Earth to Heaven when they die. As her memories of her past life increasingly fall into place she tries to understand why she has been chosen, and what the purpose is that God now has in mind for her. The story does have resonance, and for us it brought to mind the James Stewart film "It's a Wonderful Life", in which the central character is shown scenes from his past life by a guardian angel. As the book progresses enthrallingly towards its conclusion, it becomes clear that there is a crux approaching, and the tension grows as the remaining pages diminish. As a reader you find yourself wondering whether the author can possibly conjure up a really good ending that fully does justice to the success of what has gone before. He does, but you'll have to read the book yourself to find out what it is.