Kitty Aldridge's "A Trick I Learned from Dead Men" is a touchingly written, quirky story set in the world of funeral homes. The narrator is twenty-something Lee Hart. He's not the sharpest tool in the box, but his life has been tough. His father left when he was young and his mother has recently died of cancer leaving him, his step-father, a sofa-bound television make-over show addict and his deaf and wayward younger brother, Ned to fend for themselves. Lee lands a job as a trainee at the local funeral home helping Derek prepare the dead for burial or cremation. Far from being a dead end job though, it is here that he learns, ironically, about life and love, in the form of the delivery girl from the local florists.
As much as anything, it is Lee's narrative style that makes this book. It's full of short sentences, often not grammatically correct. He picks up odd words of what he deems as sophistication, especially if these are foreign words, and peppers these in his narrative like a younger version of Del-boy Trotter. So often novelists gift their narrators with a level of writing that is not consistent with their experience but not so here. The result is both touching and charming.
Aldridge also demonstrates admirable attention to her research. She acknowledges the help of funeral homes and staff in the book, and it's full of snippets and stories that can only have come from real life. Often these are darkly amusing and never gory but they give a real sense of authenticity to the book. It's hard not to imagine that Aldridge's husband, former Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler, not breathing a sigh of relief when the research phase of her work was complete as you can just see her regaling him with the latest gruesome story over their evening beans on toast! She captures the dark humour of the staff at the funeral home superbly. It oozes with detail about, well preventing oozing, as well as the dangers of taking out pacemakers prior to cremation and dealing with customers who want their relatives buried with their mobile phones. Told though Lee's naïve voice though, this is never as gruesome as it sounds.
The novel started life as a short story, for which it won the Bridport Short Story Prize. While it has been expanded here to something between a short novel and a novella, it doesn't feel like it has been unnaturally stretched out, which often happens when short stories are expanded.
Yes, elements of the story are sad, even tragic, but there is a sense of optimism in the narrative voice that is quietly uplifting. Each chapter is headed with a weather forecast, mirroring the conversations, albeit rather one sided, that Lee and Derek have with the temporary residents of the funeral home. Eccentric though the employees of Shakespeare & Son Funeral Services may be, it's not a bad place to end up you feel. In many ways it feels a rather better place than the real life world that Lee has to endure.
A novel set in a funeral home might not be your first choice, but it really is dead good.