A Trick I Learned From Dead Men
Jonathan Cape, £14.99
Or rather death is, and at the undertakers Shakespeare & Son, Derek is the man to learn from. Always treat the dead with respect. Always talk to them as you sew up their mouths: surnames only, don’t be over-familiar. Try to work out how you can apply the make-up so they can look their best, like it’s Christmas Day and they’ve been having a good time, only they’ve just slipped away.
Lee Hart is one of Derek’s trainees and he is learning the ropes. The egg-shell walk, without coming across as a ponce. Ditto the accent. Learn to speak toffee. “People want death to be posh, nice and smart, even though, of all the things we do, it is the most common.”
Kitty Aldridge’s latest novel mixes pathos and bathos in industrial quantities. Perhaps Lee’s job demands it; certainly his situation does, as the sole breadwinner looking after a mentally troubled younger brother and a stepfather whose mourning for his wife takes the form of silently vegetating in front of TV reality shows.
Lee is so much of an optimist – especially in his pursuit of Lorelle, the florist from “Fleurtations” – that one is reminded of William Fisher, the protagonist of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, who also worked for an undertaker. Where Waterhouse spun comedy out of the restrictions of class, Aldridge tackles the even more obvious challenge of the Grim Reaper.
One might legitimately wonder whether Lee would really be so good-natured and stoical, whether he would crack so many (admittedly good) jokes as his life lurches towards heartbreak on two fronts. Yet he is an immensely likeable protagonist and Aldridge has absolutely captured his engagingly open inner voice. Working sometimes against the clock, on a non-stop line of Shakespeare & Son’s corpses, Lee manages the seemingly impossible. Despite everything, he gets the last laugh. «