If I Touched The Earth by Cynthia Rogerson
I wouldn’t have picked this book up if I hadn’t been reviewing it. The cover picture, a side view of a woman holding a rose, and the title, made me think that it was going to be a novel aimed at a particular women’s market where something bad happens but through the love of family and friends all is right in the end. That would have been my loss.
Something bad does happen. A young man, Calum, from a small Highland town dies in a car crash. We never meet him but his death reverberates throughout the town, to his best friends from school, his girlfriend, his aunt, Neal (an old friend of his mother’s) and to Alison, his mother herself. It is the last two whose stories we hear in detail. After sleeping with Neal after the funeral, Alison runs away to Glasgow without telling anyone. She falls into a job in a café and looking after an old woman. She lives a half-life there, carrying out her work in a daze, constantly having conversations with her son; reliving memories of their lives as he grew up. Meanwhile Neal’s relationship with his wife slowly falls apart as he realises that he has married her because she was the only woman who had agreed to sleep with him but that he has always been in love with Alison. He had shared a flat with Alison and Calum in their youth and, despite years without contact, had always thought of Calum as his son.
There is also a priest who starts to lose his faith at Calum’s funeral, an aunt who starts to gain a faith of sorts, as she worries that Alison has killed herself, and Calum’s girlfriend who plants flowers for him on the site of the crash and visits it when it is dark to talk to him, constantly reliving the moment of his death and wondering if it was because of her.
Such multiple narratives are challenging but the author handles them skillfully and confidently. Every character has their story, sometimes told briefly, at other times in depth, and we sometimes enter the room with one person but leave it with another. Despite this, there is never a moment where the switch of narrator confuses, and we are never puzzled about who we are with or whether we are in the past or the present. In this way it reminds me very much of Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor, another novel told through multiple narratives, where the death of a man affects all the people that he knew. Sometimes the number of stories and the in-depth explorations of the characters’ thoughts slow down the plot more than I would have liked. There are also moments of slight mysticism that jarred for me – a woman in a shop drops her bag when Calum dies, someone dances in the kitchen when something happy happens elsewhere – but these are rare and generally they attempt to show us how a young man who has never achieved much impacts on so many lives. This is a quiet novel. The characters are ordinary people living in a small town, working in factories, hating their job, falling out with their families, losing touch and then coming back together again. They are not always particularly likeable but still we care about them and we want Alison to have her happy ending, in as much as there can be one. I’ll be looking out for Cynthia Rogerson’s books in the future.
If I Touched The Earth
Black & White, rrp £7•99, 256pp