‘Lee Hart is a knob,’ says the local graffiti. Lee Hart is also an undertaker at Shakespeare & Son as well as older brother to the deaf Ned and carer for both Ned and their stepfather Lester. Lester has lost all hope since his wife/Lee and Ned’s mother died of cancer and he spends his days sitting on the settee watching reality television programmes. The living dead, we might say.
Lee’s job has taught him about death, or so he thinks. It’s taught him that:
Everyone is someone. They have status, the dead…It’s true that you’re somebody when you’re dead, you get respect.
And that people have odd penchants for items that they want to take with them when they’re dead:
Mr Muldarney is causing a stir. The Basic Coffin. Blue frill. Gown. Embalm no. Viewing: TBA. Awaiting crem details. Personal Effects: A photograph of a little boy. Set of teeth. An onion.
Yours truly despatched to Somerfield for said onion. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
Other light relief comes in the form of the local florist Lorelle, who Lee has his eye on:
From her perspective life looks like one mad raving bender of birth, baptism, marriage, death. All the big dates in human life. P’raps her view is as skewed as mine after all. Nice to have things in common.
He sets out to win her heart by following a magazine article he’s read titled ‘Five Things Girls Can’t Resist’.
But the real core of the story comes from Lee’s relationship with Ned. Ned’s deafness was caused by him catching mumps at four months. He hadn’t been inoculated against them. He caught the disease from Lee.
He was a gifted child. She told me that. I believed her. She was terrified he might wander on to the dual carriageway: Ned was drawn to electric fences, lightning, canals, traffic. I thought about that. I told him deaf people couldn’t die. I thought it would cheer him up. I led him to the dual carriageway. Not to hurt him, on the contrary, I wanted to watch him survive, use his gift, see how he did it. A gap in the traffic, off he ran, arms out like a bird. No fear. Halfway across he stood at the crash barrier, waving, watching the cars rocketing. The horror on the drivers’ faces made us laugh, the brake lights flashing as the cars slowed. Result! I was proud, the effect he had, definitely a gift.
But as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that the dark undertone that seems to define the relationship between the two boys is being pushed to the forefront. Lee resents Ned’s special status and Ned seems to blame Lee for their mother’s death.
Lee’s voice, however, helps to prevent the novel becoming too dark. He talks in clichés a lot (which can be irritating, depending on your viewpoint); he cares about whether his language makes him ‘come over as a ponce’ when he’s introduced to new words, and he ends sentences with the word ‘but’. It’s as though Lee has to recognise the dark elements in life but tries to distance himself from them.
A Trick I Learned from Dead Men is an interesting look at death from different angles. It permeates Lee Hart’s life, which suggests that the book will be incredibly depressing but it’s not. There are bleak moments but there are also points that signal hope too. Worth a read.