Book Review: Five to One

Five to One, by Chris Chalmers, tells the stories of five groups of people whose lives intersect when a helicopter crashes on Clapham Common in London. Due to the moving timelines and number of characters involved it took time to fully engage with the disparate plots. There is humour in the narrative despite the various difficulties the protagonists must navigate. This is a story of individuals and the challenges of living.

The prologue introduces the pilot as he flies east along the path of the Thames. A brief background is offered but little else is revealed. The remainder of the book is divided into five parts. These progress the tales being told of the remaining protagonists, just a few scenes each at a time.

Ian is a middle aged gardener who used to work in the city. Married to Carla, he embarks on an affair with Agnes, a young Polish nanny employed by a client. He tries to convince himself that he is doing nothing wrong for reasons that will become clear. Carla is seeking direction and ends up finding fame, if only for a day.

Glory works in a care home, a job she enjoys, unlike many of her colleagues. She lives with her self-absorbed sister, Mercy, and helps support her young nephew and neice. When one of the elderly residents at Glory’s workplace complains that a stranger is entering her room during the night the often confused old lady’s concerns are dismissed. Glory decides to investigate further, bringing down trouble on herself.

Tony has recently arrived in London from New Zealand. He is on sabbatical from both his job and relationship, neither of which he is convinced he wishes to continue. Asides about his increasing girth drive him to exercise on the common where he meets Shelley, a young woman who tells him she is seeking an opportunity to become pregnant. The encounter plants the seed of an idea in Tony’s head about fatherhood and the direction he now wishes his life to take.

Mari and Adam have also taken extended leave from their safe and sensible jobs. They have travelled to South America where they teach English as a foreign language in between exploring the region, especially the indigenous wildlife which Adam reveres. Their relationship appears solid if unexciting, but the cracks that exist become harder to ignore when marriage is proposed. Neither can be fully satisfied in quite the way the other thinks.

The plotlines and characters are appealing yet their potential is never fully realised. The writing flows but the continuous movement between arcs distracted from the empathy being built. I enjoyed the windows into ordinary lives, the self-inflicted difficulties and awkward attempts to extricate. Whilst the ideas and the writing were resourceful and assured, the story structure didn’t work for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Light From Other Windows

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Light From Other Windows, by Chris Chalmers, is a story about a family coping with bereavement, and the secrets that we keep from those we love. It is a reminder of how fragile the lives we construct for ourselves are, how easily the house of cards can be blown away when difficult truths are faced. It raises questions about perception, the roles we play, and how much we really know about those we feel close to.

Nineteen year old Josh Maitland is nearing the end of an around the world adventure which he has embarked upon in his gap year between school and university.  He is visiting the Canary Islands when a devastating tsunami hits, claiming eight hundred and fifty-eight lives. Back home, his family watch the dreadful news unfold on TV, unsure of exactly where Josh is. When his body is found they each struggle to cope and find their lives unraveling in different ways.

Diana, Josh’s mother, believed that she was close to her youngest son. She puts her business acumen to work organising his funeral, but then finds herself unable to move on. She worries about how Josh was feeling just before he died, wanting to know if he was happy. In an attempt to help, her husband contacts Josh’s friend Stella, who reveals that Josh had been writing a blog while he was away. As the family read the words that Josh wrote for his friends they realise how little they knew about the boy they had lived alongside for so long.

Rachel and Jem, Josh’s older sister and brother, had pictured themselves as Josh’s mentors, siblings he looked up to. They perceived him as the child they helped to care for after their father walked out on them all just before Josh was born. Growing up, Josh had seemed carefree and popular, someone they would indulge and advise. They had never regarded him as their equal.

As each family member reads Josh’s words they pick out in particular those brief segments which refer to them, and worry about how the others will react to the secrets that are revealed. It is difficult enough that the illusions they had created around Josh are shattered, now they must also face having the image they have crafted of themselves peeled back. Each is absorbed in how they will henceforth be seen, paying scant regard to the words written about others. How true to life this seemed, the world revolving around our own inner selves.

It is not just the siblings who have been keeping secrets, but also the parents. When the family get together to discuss the blog, further revelations shatter perceptions which they have lived with all their lives. A recalibration is required.

As a parent of teenagers this book raised so many emotions. The first half of the book, which covered Josh’s death and the immediate aftermath, were difficult enough to consider. The second half, where grief took its toll and each family member faced up to a changed past, proved equally challenging. It is known that young adults turn to friends, but what is rarely discussed is why they hide from family. How much does the advice given by well meaning elders deter the young person from being honest about their actions and feelings?

This story is beautifully structured with a pace and flow that draws the reader effortlessly in. At its heart is the raw emotion of trust and love. It is a powerful, thought provoking read about modern family life that will challenge comfortable assumptions. Despite the difficult subject matter its message is life affirming. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.