13th Aug 2012
A Trick I Learned from Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge
Her third, based on the short story, Arrivederci Les, which won the Bridport Short Story Prize in 2011, is a quirky narrative set in a funeral home.
Narrated by Lee Hart, a twenty five year old trainee at Shakespeare and Co. Funeral Home, A Trick I Learned From Dead Men is a rambling tale of how he copes when his mother dies of cancer.
Left looking after his younger brother Ned, who is both deaf and unruly, Lee also has to deal with Lester, his step-father who hasn’t moved from an armchair since his wife died.
Far from being depressing, Lee’s work in the funeral home is a relief after being at home.
As he learns the ins and outs of funeral directing, from preparing the body for burial or cremation to the correct etiquette when meeting relatives, the other employees of Shakespeare and Co. provide Lee with the stability that he lacks elsewhere.
It is the narration that makes the book original and interesting. By turns amusing, almost unbearably poignant and just plain weird, Aldridge has created a unique voice in Lee.
His speech is peppered with words which he feels give him an air of sophistication and he has a fondness for foreign greetings, all of which make him endearingly irritating.
Since his mother’s death, Lee’s world is almost exclusively male. The sole female characters are Irene, the funeral home’s secretary, and Lorelle, from the local florist, with whom Lee has a naive flirtation.
He reads an article in a magazine about ‘Five Things Girls Can’t Resist’ and his attempts to try out each stereotype in turn are endearingly amusing.
It is obvious that a lot of research has gone into the novel. Aldridge includes a myriad of funereal details, although they never seem shoe-horned in for the sake of it.
The details are more touching and gently amusing than gory, and there was only one scene which I wouldn’t have wanted to read over lunch (it involves oozing…).
It took a while for me to warm to Lee and his conversations with Crow ( a crow) and Mast (a pylon), but the little sections in which he speaks about his mother and the way in which the whole family tried every ‘cure’ possible for her cancer swayed me. They have a simplicity which adds to the poignancy of us knowing that no amount of belief could save her.
I might have made it sound depressing, but the novel benefits from an optimistic epilogue which made me look again at the overall tone of the book.
I have an ability to find the most cheerful of narratives tear-jerking, so I suspect that most readers will find this uplifting, albeit quietly so.
Recommended for: Lovers of quirky narrative voices; people who value characterisation over plot.
Other recommended reading: Try The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones for another whimsical story of a funeral director ; for another tale of an ordinary man determined to beat death, try The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.