I discovered Charity Norman’s writing a few years ago and devoured her back catalogue over a couple of weeks that summer. I jumped at the chance to review her latest novel and I read it in a day, because it was impossible to stay away from the characters and the incredible sense of tension created by the author. Set around one day in London, the author takes a handful of strangers and places them together in an intense situation. Abi is a solicitor, who decides to pop to a Balham cafe called Tuckbox because the station cafe is crowded and she only has four minutes till her train. Mutesi has come from a night shift and is meeting her daughter -in -law in Tuckbox to collect her grandson, Emmanuel. Neil is homeless, and has been given some money so he opts to visit Tuckbox and sit by the radiator for a while. Inside is a waitress and cafe owner, Robert. Into this everyday scene walks Sam and each of their lives is about to change beyond recognition.
After a brief argument with Robert, Sam returns to his nearby Land Rover and comes back with a shotgun. It’s not long before Robert is lying, bleeding in Neil’s arms and despite Mutesi’s nursing efforts he dies. What follows is a tense stand off between the police and Sam who is holding a small group of people hostage. His constant demands are to see his daughter, Julia and speak to his ex-girlfriend Nicola. Everything has gone wrong in his life and he wants some answers from her about their relationship and whether she was really having a relationship with Robert, who was his stepfather. The chapters then swap between different viewpoints, from each of the people in the cafe to Eliza, who works as a negotiator for the police.
The first thing that struck me about the book was how this group of people work together. From a psychological perspective, they worked very like one of my therapy groups. They become accustomed to each other, listen to each other’s stories and through the sharing of secrets come to understand themselves and each other a little better. There’s a strange catharsis in being part of this group. As each member tells their story a weight is lifted, because they no longer hold a guilty or painful secret. Furthermore, by hearing other people’s stories some kind of healing takes place. From infertility, addiction, and even genocide the book teaches us that everyone has struggled. It seems that perspective can be gained by hearing what other people have done or experienced.
In another way, it can be a relief to be simply heard and accepted. For Sam this is a huge gift because he is the aggressor in the situation, but the group still hear him. His story is one of loss and coercive control. His father dies suddenly and traumatically, leaving Sam, his mother and the farm at the mercy of Robert. He was a friend of the family and although he has a great public face, in private he’s a monster. The terrible way he reduces Sam’s mother from the curvy, wild-haired, laughing woman she is at the beginning to a thin, nervy, controlled wreck is hard to read. The worst part for me was the loss of Sam’s dogs, probably because mine mean the world to me. Robert seems like a parasite as he leaches all the resources from the family and the farm, until there’s nothing left. Sam can see him for what he really is and as he tells the story the group simply accept his lived experience. No one questions, or disagrees with him and although they’ve seen him commit an act of violence, there is empathy for his experience.
From behind the police cordon we watch Eliza, the negotiator, and the skilled way she works to bring resolution. She is calm, non-judgemental and totally focused on Sam. We see the responsibility of the role and how much it takes out of her. The tension is kept up by the knowledge that this is only going to last a few hours, depending on Sam giving up, Eliza succeeding in resolving the situation or the waiting armed response officers going in. The author creates flash points within the story where something is discovered or concealed. This means the reader is constantly on edge, waiting for each ‘reveal’. Every character has their role. Abi is blunt, but very knowledgeable about the law. Neil is possibly at the rock bottom of his life, probably giving him the humanity he shows for someone else’s pain. Mutesi touched me so deeply. I was amazed by her strength. She wanders in the background making sure there’s tea and cake, tending to Sam’s wounded head and safely holding the space for everyone to talk. Without her the group wouldn’t work, but she says little about herself until it’s necessary. When it comes, her story is quietly devastating.
The book’s ending broke me. I was genuinely in tears for these characters which shows the skill of this particular writer. I believe in each one of them. Novels are at their best when they teach us something about what it is to be human. This one shows that if we all just shut up and listened, we have so much more in common than we think at first sight. We should be kind to each other, because we never know what the other person is going through. I am always amazed by people who have gone through the worst experiences life can throw at them, but can still find the strength to help others. Although Sam takes a life, he is the catalyst for this small group to make changes in how they live. I could see parallels with our current lockdown situation. For those of us not directly affected, by loss or by working on the frontline, this is a time out of time. Time to reflect, take stock, and instead of bouncing straight back into our old routine we could find ways to make our lives better. To help more, to work less, to spend more time with those we miss, and rebalance our lives. These characters take a terrifying situation and choose to grown and connect. It was moving, compassionate and a story for these times.