Jonathan Cape £14.99

A Trick I Learned From Dead Men, By Kitty Alridge

From cradle to mortuary – the life of a valiant teenager

The actress and writer Kitty Aldridge has a talent for vocalising the thoughts of the young. The protagonist of her debut Pop (2001), which was longlisted for the Orange Prize, was a teenage girl. Cryers Hill (2007) featured a boy who, like Aldridge herself, had been taught phonetic spelling. The main character in her latest novel (and the protagonist of her 2011 Bridport Prize-winning short story "Arrivederci Les") is a young man whose voice reflects the courage and vulnerability of a valiant teenager.

Lee was 18 when his mother died of breast cancer, leaving him to look after his deaf younger brother Ned and their grief-numbed stepfather, Les. The boys' natural father disappeared years before. Lee works as an undertaker, Les has been made redundant, and Ned refuses to contemplate jobs requiring travel.

In her first-person narration, Aldridge captures the idiom and diction of an earnest working lad. Lee is fond of decorating his speech with snippets of Italian, which pepper his inner running commentary like Tourette's tics. The clichés in his dialogue ("You couldn't make it up", "These things happen", "It's not all doom and gloom", "If you don't laugh, you'll cry') add to the authenticity of his voice, although they become wearing. But his staccato sentences are immensely powerful when describing traumatic events such as his mother's decline, her death, and Lee's subsequent role as wage-earner. They are also effective and shocking when Lee talks about the risks he took with Ned's life when they were young, such as coercing his deaf brother into running across the dual carriageway.

The unembellished matter-of-factness also adds to the impact of Aldridge's descriptions of Lee's job. The sensitivity and respect with which Lee and his colleagues treat the deceased is touching: they talk to the cadavers, handle them carefully, clean, dress and make them up to reduce the distress to the families who view them, and they follow relatives' wishes about which personal effects should accompany the bodies on their final journey.

Lee's honesty is often funny, as when he texts a girl he likes execrable jokes, or tries to impress her. Where his short, simple monologue falls down is in relation to mundane topics: "It's late when I lock up at night ... I boil the kettle for Ned's drink ... helps him sleep ... calms him down." Apart from one bereavement in the middle of the novel, tumultuous events are confined to the past or to the end, so these sections in which not much happens could have been trimmed to no detrimental effect.

Aldridge is skilful at portraying the complexities of the love-hate sibling relationship. Lee is driven to fury by Ned's slovenly torpor. His violence towards Ned when they were children reveals that even then he was enraged by what he perceived as his mother's favouritism. In fact, it's apparent that she treasured them both but saw them differently: Lee as strong, Ned as fragile .Yet the boys' love for each other overrides jealousy and competition.

Since the ending is mentioned on the first page, it's not a spoiler to say that it resonates with Shakespearian tragedy. The crow in the woods with which Lee has imagined conversations is a symbol and harbinger of this dark conclusion.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution