Tuesday 14 December 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Contacts

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

Contacts by Mark Watson

18/21: Contacts by Mark Watson

The blurb: At five to midnight in Euston station, James Chiltern sends one text to all 158 people in his contacts. A message saying goodbye.

Five minutes later, with two pork pies and a packet of chocolate digestives in his pocket, he disappears.

Across the world, 158 phones light up. Phones belonging to James’s friends, his family, people he’s lost touch with. All of them now wondering, where has James gone? What happened to him? And more importantly, can they find him before it’s too late?

Funny and wise, tender and deeply moving, Contacts is a beautiful story about the weight of loneliness, the importance of kindness – and how it’s never too late to reach out.

The review: First of all, I should probably say that I don't know why I set myself these reading goals because, despite their simplicity (so many books in a year), I seem to fail them every time (I only managed seventeen in '19 and a frankly pathetic eleven in '20). Still, here we are, with my eighteenth book of 2021. So, what did I make of it?

Well, on the face of it Contacts is a tough sell - it is, after all, a novel whose chief protagonist wants to kill himself. Speaking as someone who also wrote a novel about someone who wants to kill himself, I know just how tough a sell that is. And, you might think, a grim read. But it isn't, because this is also a novel about human connection and, more specifically, how the oft-maligned hyper-connectivity afforded to us by technology can actually have a positive effect. Oh, and Mark Watson being Mark Watson, there are some funny moments too, he can't help himself. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but there are plenty of wry smiles to be had, and that's probably no bad thing when your leading character is off on a journey to take his own life.

The blurb seems to suggest that there might be 158 minor characters all reacting to our hero James's last message but don't worry, there aren't - that would be a nightmare to follow. No, the supporting cast of characters trying to save James are his ex, his former best friend, his sister, his flatmate and his mum. It's through their relationships with James that we get his back-story, and come to see how he has come to this point: specifically, on a sleeper train to Edinburgh, where he plans to jump off the bridge that he'd once scattered his dad's ashes from. And whilst these characters provide the context, and avoid having to fill the story in purely from James's flashbacks, they are also the source of my one bug-bear with this novel: whilst not quite stereotypes, they are certainly headed in that direction: the mum who doesn't "get" technology; the over-achieving sibling; the mate you'd crawl over broken glass for, despite his flaws; the partner that left you for someone else but wonders whether they made the right choice... Even the minor characters, like the mum's bumbling but well-meaning new partner and the flatmate's colleague who just wants to get her into bed - they just seem a bit cookie-cutter too. And that's a shame because, for me, this detracted slightly from what is otherwise a very satisfying read.

But only very slightly, because Watson is a talented writer whose prose style keeps the pages turning, to the extent that I am currently very tired because I couldn't put Contacts down, even when crying out for sleep. That has to be a good sign, right? And okay, so the ending seemed a little rushed and didn't have much to do with the supporting cast I'd just spent 350 pages getting to know, but maybe that's a good thing - no spoilers, but I didn't see the ending coming, and that's probably another good sign, right? I do worry slightly for Mark though, because I think to write effectively, convincingly and this matter-of-factly about being in James's state of mind, you probably need to have been there yourself. I don't want to speculate on or second-guess the author's personal life in a review, I just hope he's okay, that's all.

The bottom line: on the face of it, a tough sell, but this is actually an uplifting novel by a talented writer, only slightly let down by some mild stereotyping in the supporting cast.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

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