I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started this novel. It’s a contemporary fiction set in the present and based in Bristol. The plot is simple: how the lives of several characters intersect and are changed by using Freecycle.
Freecycle too has a simple principle: donating items or services for free, or advertising for what you need.
The key word here is synchronicity: what happens when chance or fate seem to produce meaningful results, more than mere coincidence.
On this basis, the author weaves a story about a group of people whose paths cross. The result is like a fairytale. It’s not all plain-sailing, and there are dark shadows: cancer, grief and loss, autism and divorce. But there is also hope and the notion that a chance encounter can open up new possibilities for people who thought they had none.
The characters include Jane, who has to get rid of her late husband’s much loved chair before she moves into a new flat;
Her daughter Anna, in a relationship so detached she doesn’t really care when her partner ends it;
Robyn, a painter struggling to care for her three children after their father left her alone to deal with the last, autistic son, Finn;
Animal-loving Debbie, struggling to make ends meet and desperate to find a prom dress for her daughter Frankie;
Tracy, working hard in a house mortgaged up to the hilt, while her husband Eddie has what seems like secure work as a lorry driver, and her mother, cold and snobbish, is more of a hindrance than a help;
Dan, a handsome older man with a loft apartment who has just been dumped by his glamorous but selfish lover;
And Robyn’s brother Craig, a red-haired musician who shows up whenever he can to help out with the kids and give his sister a rest.
The old chair, symbol of Jane’s dead husband Hugh, becomes the fulcrum on which these encounters turn. Jane lists the chair on Freecycle and when Robyn accepts it as a seat for models in her studio, a connection is made.
I loved this and found it harder to put down as time went on. There is a sense of real jeopardy and you fear for the characters and will them to succeed. They are likeable, realistic people, not flawless. There are few truly horrible characters, though Tracy’s mother has a good go.
What the novel evokes beautifully are the sights and sounds of Bristol, the smells of a hot summer and some really appetising food. The characters are portrayed sympathetically and with heart and compassion. There is a heart-rending description of Finn, the autistic child, and his desperation because he can’t understand his environment; but the story does not romanticise how difficult it is to care for such a child unsupported, for mother and siblings.
Also embedded in the story is the idea of found families, how important they are and how connections with people who were strangers can bring hope and new possibilities.
(This review is cross-posted to various places).