Reviewed by Clare Brook
In his latest novel Contacts Mark Watson validates the positive power of our modern telephone technology; how social media can be used to facilitate communication, providing paths to inclusion and empowerment for those on the margins of society.
To achieve the above, Watson constructs a plot around James, a man in his thirties, planning his suicide. The first page details a suicide note that James texts to the 158 people on his contact list. It is a matter-of-fact, unemotional message that reassures all and sundry that ‘I know what I’m doing, and I’m fine’. He thanks these people, some of whom are close friends, others mere acquaintances, for the things they have shared. This is a compelling scenario – so hard not to continue reading.
Watson is a master of taking the story forward mainly at a fast pace, while seamlessly filling in the back-story. Understanding why James is taking this drastic action floats into readers’ consciousness, along with empathy for the lonely, those who cannot see anything getting better anytime soon. It takes on the stance of social commentary for those disenfranchised from life. And yet, it is not maudlin; satirical observation is never far from the action.
The main characters are a mixed bunch but not extraordinary, rather it is how they react to the intended suicide text that provokes readers’ interest. They spring into action in different ways to locate James before his final demise. The perspective of each character is presented in separate chapters, switching from one to another as they attempt to find James. His sister is in Melbourne, conducting a motivational event attended by hundreds of people. His ex best friend and business partner, is chauffeuring a cantankerous passenger up the MI to Newcastle. A much loved ex girlfriend is in Germany with a new lover. And his waitress flat mate, Steffi, is in London setting up pages on various social media sites hoping to garner support for James.
Unbeknown to everyone, James is on a train to Edinburgh, a trip he and his deceased father have made many times, and where he plans to throw himself from a bridge. It is not a recent upheaval that has upset James rather an accumulation of events over a few years has left him feeling hollow. None of the 158 contacts has bothered to ask if he is ok. A dearth of encouragement increases the void. Watson’s poignant message is plain.
Contacts is an interesting read, a tad too long perhaps, and the ending attempts a plot twist that is a little jarring, even unclear. But Watson gets his point across – let’s use our clever technology to build a better life for everyone.
Watson is a Cambridge graduate, author of eight novels and a stand-up comedian appearing regularly in England and Australia.
By Mark Watson
$32.99; Pp. 370