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Norman Smith is 52 years old and has terminal cancer. When we meet him at the start of the book he has just had his pre-op sedative and is waiting for an operation to buy him a bit more time. Some of his fellow cancer patients believe in God but Norman doesn't. So it comes as a big surprise to him to wake up from his operation and find himself on a wooden bench in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, which turns out to be Heaven. He is greeted by the Archangel Phil, his mentor, who explains that, "we always like to start off new arrivals in familiar surroundings." Free from pain, Norman quickly discovers that in Heaven he can do anything he pleases. He can control the weather, he can see Manchester United hammer Liverpool as often as he likes, he can spend his days with an English Rose, eat whatever he likes, go wherever he likes and even get to star in The Sopranos. Norman is happier than he ever was in life until fate decides to throw a massive spanner in the works. Can you have too much of a good thing? All is revealed as this amusing and unusual novel allows us to accompany Norman on an eventful and often shocking journey.
Reading about cancer is not going to be everyone's idea of an uplifting read. I was certainly unsure that I was going to enjoy this book, but Terry Ravenscroft's description of Norman's plight is insightful, at times moving but also funny. Bringing humour into a book about cancer without seeming distasteful is quite an achievement. The story is narrated by Norman in the first person and he comes across as a Grumpy Old Man with his many observations on what is wrong with the world. The general tone is that the world is already bad enough with rap music, junk mail, Bruce Forsyth and fat people in velour jogging suits without cancer entering into the equation. As he awaits his operation, someone turns the ward TV over to Loose Women and he comments that, "all the sedation in the world couldn't make that bearable." The narrative skips back to when Norman was first diagnosed with cancer. Not surprisngly, he asks, why me? He makes it clear that he would not wish it on anyone, but that it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if Mugabe got it instead. When Norman sits down to put his affairs in order and it only takes ten minutes, he sees this as a sad reflection on his uneventful life. At other times he ponders such things as what song to have played at his funeral and whether Call out the Fire Brigade by The Move would be bad taste if he was to be cremated.
There are some poignant moments, such as when Norman struggles to make a list of things he wants to do before he dies and it dawns on him that the pleasure of doing things is in the memory of them, - "having memories necessitates having a future and I hadn't got a future now." He also describes how whenever he does anything, such as catch a bus, look at the stars, make a cup of tea, etc, he finds himself wondering how many more times he will be doing it, or if it is the last time. I felt that the author provided a good balance between humour and sombreness, which made Norman's cancer experience seem very credible.
I'm in Heaven is a clever satire on religion. Although I accept that the book's tone could be offensive to those who are genuine believers, it pokes fun at atheists and believers alike. It is ironic that Norman, who has never believed in god should find himself in heaven. Before his death he spends hours listening to the religious patients on his ward who spend the whole time talking about how wonderful heaven is and he wonders why they keep putting themselves through radiotherapy to avoid going there if it's so inviting. There are some very funny conversations between the men on the ward, speculating about what heaven is like, whether you're allowed to play cards there, whether you're allowed to have sex there, etc. "I hope you do a bit more than sit about on clouds," one patient observes. "I sit about all day as it is. I'm a fireman." There are some clever little touches, such as Charles Darwin ending up in heaven and having to eat his words, and of Jehovah's Witnesses getting fed up of being in heaven and wanting to return to earth because there is nobody there to convert.
When Norman arrives in Heaven, the reader shares his sense of elation and relief as he no longer has to endure cancer. Norman's life on earth was particularly dull. He spent much of it being saddled to his mother who scuppered his marriage prospects, he was made redundant and he never realised his dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. At 52 Norman was very much on the scrap heap. Then along came cancer to apparently finish him off for good. I loved reading the descriptions of Norman's early life with his mother and of his futile attempts to find a girlfriend, including Sue from Stockport who didn't live up to his English Rose ideal because she drunk pints of black and tan, picked her nose and "said 'fuck' every few words." So it is ironic that, far from finishing him off, death allows Norman to actually start living again in a strange heaven inhabited by such people as The Beatles, Michael Caine and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Ravenscroft's depiction of heaven is inventive. It invites the reader to think about what they would have in their own heaven. I recently read Terry Ravenscroft's book 'Stairlift to Heaven' in which he presents his thoughts on a variety of topics from the point of view of an old aged pensioner. Ravenscroft had a tendency to rant throughout that book and seemed to have a real chip on his shoulder. In this novel I felt that through Norman Smith he was just taking the opportunity to continue that rant on the same things - the X-Factor, Strictly, the youth of today etc. Although it was amusing to an extent, it became a bit tedious at times when Norman listed all the things he disliked in life and didn't want in his heaven. Also Ravenscroft's politically incorrect sense of humour evident in 'Stairlift to Heaven' comes across here. As a script writer from the 1970s, Ravenscroft has a slightly outdated sense of what is funny, which can make rather uncomfortable reading. So we have references to some jokes about Muslim bridegrooms and brides in burkas in this book, which don't add much in terms of humour and seem frankly anachronistic.
I found it an easy book to read and I wanted to keep turning the pages. At times the novel has some dark, rather disturbing elements. Ravenscroft's writing style can be coarse and not for the squeamish. Norman certainly has some unusual and vaguely disturbing adventures throughout this novel. I didn't guess the ending but when I finished the book I realised how in earlier parts of the novel the author had cleverly made references to things which would be tied up neatly at the end. It wasn't one of those novels where you feel the author has been so determined to end with a twist that they haven't bothered to set it up from the start, so certain parts of the novel seem incongruous with the final outcome. All in all, this was a well-crafted book. Norman is a complex character. I wasn't sure whether I liked him or not. At times I felt sympathetic towards him, at times he made me laugh, but at other times I found his negativity rather tedious. It's not a predictable book where cancer patient automatically equals sympathy, which makes it a lot more interesting.
Overall, I would recommend this book because it held my attention throughout and I was eager to find out what would happen. The politically incorrect humour is rather off putting at times but Ravenscroft can also be very sharp and does have a good grasp of the flaws and inconsistencies that affect most people, which is what makes them fascinating characters, whether likeable or not.
This book is available for Kindle for £2.99.