Jonathan Cape £14.99
A Trick I Learned From Dead Men, By Kitty Alridge
From cradle to mortuary – the life of a valiant teenager
Sunday 15 July 2012
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.
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