A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge

Lately my reading has been stuck in the past. Books from the past, books about the past, books set in the past …. It’s the best way to escape from a world that is changing in ways I’m not entirely happy about. Sometimes though, a contemporary novel will pull me back to the present.

I didn’t think of Kitty Aldridge as an author of contemporary novels, I thought of her as the author of two very good novels that I couldn’t quite put a label on. And now here’s a third.

It belongs to Lee Hart, a twenty-four year old trainee funeral director. It is clear from the very first that Lee applies himself to his job, that having this role in life is important to him.

“You knock first before you go in. You don’t wait of course. Good morning, Mr Gillespie. Lee here. Nice day. Everyone is known by their formal name: Mr, Mrs, Miss. We have not yet had a Lord or a Lady, but we had a Doctor and a Major. Babies and kiddies are their first name. Everyone is someone. They have status, the dead. Derek said that. It’s true, you’re somebody when you’re dead. you get respect.”

As Lee recounted the details of his day, in a voice that rang so very true, a voice that I could hear in my head I began to build a picture of his life.

His father had left a long time ago and his mother had died. Now he lived with Lester, his step-father, who had given up on life since he lost his wife. And with Ned, his brother, who was deaf  and who hadn’t managed to find a way to deal with the world.

They both infuriated Lee, but he understood too. Both relationships are simply and beautifully drawn. And utterly believable.

Lee was the coper, the quiet optimist. A young man looking for his place in the world.

He picked up expressions, mannerisms, habits from his older colleagues, because he wanted to root himself in their world, because their camaraderie was so important to him.

I saw all of this as Lee went about his business, wondering which prepackaged lunch to pick from the array on offer, wondering how to make his exchanges with the girl from the florist’s shop grow in to a proper relationship.

I would have found it impossible not to like him, in possible not to care.

So much is conveyed in this little book, simply by having one character tell his story.

It might sound depressing, and at one level it is, but Lee’s good nature, and his unspoken faith in the future pull his story towards the light.

Even when things started to go wrong …

It’s an accomplished piece of writing. But now I have reached the end I feel that I have met a character, read a simple story, and I wish that there could have been just a little more.

Maybe a light could have been shone on stories of all of the employees of Shakespeare & Co, Funeral Directors – the ex-publican, the aspiring athlete, the driver with failing health … or maybe it’s right that I’m left to wonder about those other lives.

Then again, I have to say that Lee deserved to tell his own story and to have it heard.

And I do think that it was the right time for he and I to part company. I’m glad we met, and I’d like to think that one day he would be able to pause and realise that the faith he had in the future had been justified.