I think there are a few secret rules that authors are taught at author school – how to pose for the photos on the back of the book, how to sign books so that their name is almost (but not quite) illegible and, most importantly, when to include an M in their name. Iain Banks did it to delineate the difference between his literary and his sci-fi novels and now David Barnett (author of the Gideon Smith novels) has added an M to his name for his latest book – which is definitely a departure from his previous steampunk works. And I can see why it would be useful to make this clear since this book has very little to do with airships, mechanical girls or heroes of the British Empire. Well, hardly anything…
This book is the story of Thomas Major who, after the total failure of his marriage, manages to inveigle his way onto a one-way, one-man, mission to Mars. Mission control assume he will then set up and wait for the next ship to arrive with more intrepid astronauts but he knows he is just looking for the ultimate seclusion in which to die. All in all he’s a miserable beggar. The story swerves, however, into much sweeter territory when he tries to ring his ex-wife and ends up chatting to Gladys, a grandmother from Wigan who is meant to be caring for her motherless grandchildren but is having trouble remembering what day of the week it is. As Thomas moves further away from Earth he becomes more involved with Gladys and her family than he has been with anyone for a long time.
I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this book – I knew it was going to be very different from the author’s previous work – but I really loved it. The story is a bit quirky (and we’ve established I love quirky), there is humour and also some genuinely moving moments. The main character is delightfully grumpy (there is a running gag about his name and he spends most of his time telling people that he should be called Thomas, not Tom, and that he’s not a major…) and Gladys and her grandchildren, Ellie and James, are wonderful. It is not all laughs, of course. Ellie is having to work three jobs as well as going to school and she daren’t ask for help in case the authorities take them into care when they discover that Gladys has dementia and James, like so many children, is keeping quiet about being bullied.
It is a bit of a cliché to say that I laughed and cried while reading this. But it can’t be a cliche if its true, can it?