A short punchy review for a short punchy book. A Trick I Learned from Dead Men is a very brief book; I read it in one sitting. The novel concentrates on the ups and downs of a trivial life and how we try to find success despite our setbacks. The central character Lee is desperately trying to find his place in the world and hopes it is one that accommodates his job as an Undertaker, his deaf brother Ned and the romantic inspiration of his life, Lorelle the local florist.
Kitty Aldridge writes with impact and certainly steps into the mind of Lee. Her sentences are short and sharp as most men would use in the natural world. And Kitty writes exactly as Lee would talk. So we get things such as “We got the trampoline second-hand: an Emperor twelve footer (no safety net) thirty-nine pounds off eBay…” He speaks what he feels at the moment so every thought is unrestricted. This very apparent in his attitudes towards Ned.
Lee loves his brother but feels he is a burden, often referring to him as a Knobhead and thinking about putting him out of his misery. Lee is surrounded by people he “has” to love – you can’t choose your family, etc. But he is being held back. Ned is a child in an adult’s body, his Dad left when he was younger and his step dad just sits in his chair all day watching reality TV and mourning his wife.
Death is everywhere in this book and Kitty uses it almost like a warning to Lee. You begin to care about this bloke who puts on a show and only wants to be the best Undertaker he can be. He’s endearing. He gets hurt along the way and he’s so close to the dead that he has an urgency to move forward and fast.
I’d like to say it’s a rather bleak book but Aldridge uses so much humour that it takes the edge off of the melancholy. There are many heartbreaking moments and twists of sadness, but Lee has to see the bright side of life so Aldridge has to show the light as well as the dark. Of course, much of the book is set in a funeral home and Aldridge spent a lot of time behind the scenes watching how things are done, so don’t expect the scenes with dead bodies to be sugarcoated.
A Trick I Learned from Dead Men is a well accomplished book and the only reason it scores the way it does is because it was just a good book, which was nice. There are no real high points, the book sort of ambles along a well written and well plotted plateau. You can see skill in Kitty’s writing and ideas but there wasn’t much to make it stand out from a crowd for me.
Published by Jonathan Cape Ltd. This book was kindly sent by the publisher for review.