Kitty Aldridge has a gift for original prose. The former actress was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002 for her debut, Pop, which followed the meanderings of a teenager and her grandfather around the pubs of Sutton Coldfield. Cryers Hill (2007) was a lyrical, Hardy-esque tale of rural idyll turning to housing estate. Aldridge riffed beautifully on landscapes and people's relationships with them. However, as in Pop, she didn't quite manage to shape her striking settings and characters into a satisfying whole. There was simply not enough going on.
Is her third novel, A Trick I Learned from Dead Men, her breakthrough? The trademark linguistic effervescence is certainly present. The narrator's tone of voice is pitch-perfect. Lee Hart is a 25-year-old trainee undertaker. He talks about his work in a bitty, chatty mish-mash of euphemism, cliché and foreign-sounding words, which he believes, Del Boy-style, proffer sophistication ("I… find per se creeping into my everyday speech. I was wary but so far no-one's said, Don't be a knob, Lee, that's French").
Lee chats up the florist (badly) and jokes about the personal effects people want buried with them – like a cheque for a million pounds or a charged mobile phone. Beneath the banter, though, lurks the grim truth. He sews lips together and stabilises eyeball slippage on corpses. He attempts to give death a pretty face.
At home there is no way to mask its horror. Lee's mother is not long dead from cancer. His stepfather, Lester, is catatonic on the sofa, engulfed in grief and daytime TV. His deaf brother Ned may well be "touched by genius" as their mother proclaimed, but is also mentally disturbed. With his "elfish laugh", he spends his days bouncing on a trampoline, burping and dashing off into the nearby woods.
As cook, cleaner and financial provider, Lee strives to hold his crumbling family together. The novel's title refers to his enforced stoicism: "Trick is to carry on in spite of. Harder than it looks. Trick is to live. Not as easy as it sounds. Dead men teach it best."
Aldridge's new novel, like her previous one, is a lament for modern humanity's disconnection from nature. In a prologue, Lee refers to his family's story as "new folklore" and "a fable, a warning". His mother sold off their family's ancient lands to set him and Ned free from the hardships of farming. But without their land, they are cut adrift. Lee seeks solace from his problems in the woods, where he slips off his social veneer to say things like: "I am the bones of the woods…I breathe in and the woods breathe out".
When Lester dies, the festering dependency and rivalry of the brothers implodes. There is certainly more plot this time round, but this blackly funny, moving, eccentric story about death is undoubtedly an acquired taste.
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