Book Reviews

Book Review: The Things We Learn When We’re Dead by Charlie Laidlaw

The Things We Learn When We're Dead by Charlie Laidlaw.jpg

Things We Learn When We're DeadSynopsis

Small decisions can have unintended consequences, but sometimes we get a second chance. 

On the way home from a dinner party she didn’t want to attend, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions.

It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident. Or does God have a higher purpose after all?

At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decisions to make and that she needs to find a way home…

Thank you to the author, Charlie Laidlaw, for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Is that what love is? Discovering a missing jigsaw piece and finding that it fits? Are we all born incomplete, compelled to search for the lost bits of us?

This started off as a slow-burner for me, but on the whole I enjoyed it. The Things We Learn When We’re Dead has sci-fi and fantasy elements, although I think it’s more contemporary fiction. The novel is also a very loose retelling of The Wizard of Oz. It centres around Lorna Love from Scotland who is hit by a car on the day of the 7/7 bombings. When Lorna wakes up, she learns that she is dead and on a spaceship. Most of the book is about Lorna’s memories of her former life. The flashbacks are told in non-linear fashion and they interweave with Lorna’s time on HVN, which took a little getting used to.

I felt sorry for Lorna who experiences a lot of turbulence from a young age. This book can get pretty bleak and tragic at times. That said, it explores some interesting themes such as how our choices affect other people. As Lorna adjusts to the HVN spaceship, you notice the connections to her life which are revealed in the flashbacks. Usually, I’m not a fan of flashbacks, but they are an essential part of the plot. Lorna has to look back on her life – family, friendships and relationships – in order to move forward and find out why she is in HVN.

Friendship plays an important role in this book. Through her memories, we learn about Lorna’s childhood and how she became best friends with Suzie. These two characters have a surprising friendship considering they are polar opposites. Whilst Lorna was a character I felt sympathetic towards, I was less sure about Suzie who gave her best friend really bad advice on two occasions. Despite this, Lorna and Suzie look out for another.

Highlights include the portrayal of God, who, like Lorna, is by no means perfect. Although God is a character and the spaceship is named Heaven, this isn’t a book that’s heavy on religion. Instead, it questions our notions of whether there is life after death in a quirky manner. Also, you can see from the lovely cover that hamsters play a role in the story! I appreciated these moments of offbeat humour.

It’s difficult to write this review without revealing massive plot spoilers, so what I will say is that there is detailed world-building. Lorna’s surroundings on the HVN spaceship are believable and unique.


A well-written and thought-provoking novel. TTWLWWD draws inspiration from a familiar tale and the result is a story with plenty of originality.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


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