I’m really delighted today to share my review of Four Minutes to Save a Life by Anna Stuart: published on 20th February by Trapeze Books, this lovely book is now available for kindle (and just 99p at the moment!), paperback and audiobook. My thanks to the publishers for my reading e-copy, provided via netgalley.
You might already be aware that last week was Loneliness Awareness Week, particularly relevant and important in these times of isolation. I’d like to say that it’s what prompted me to pick this book up, but it really wasn’t – I just had a little downtime before needing to read a book for the next blog tour, this was a book I’d missed on publication, and it was one I really so wanted to catch up with.
And that was largely because of Bonnie and Stan by the same author – I adored that book (you’ll find my review here), and had no hesitation in including it in my Books of the Year list in 2019. I said then that I was looking forward to seeing what Anna Stuart did next – and it was no real surprise to find that she’s written another book I equally loved.
Let’s take a closer look…
Everyone would spare a moment of kindness for a stranger when they were in trouble… wouldn’t they?
Supermarket delivery driver Charlie enjoys his new job, because he doesn’t have to spend too long with people, who, he’s found, are nothing but trouble. But when he’s assigned the Hope Row street, he realises there are a lot of lonely people out there – and for some, he’s their only interaction.
The supermarket boss tells Charlie he’s a driver, not a social worker – but Charlie’s tough exterior begins to soften, and he can’t help show a little kindness to the Hope Row residents, helping them find their place in the world once more.
But will his helping hand make everything worse?
This book… it’s so difficult to review it without spoiling the story for others, but I thought it was simply wonderful. I unfailingly enjoy ensemble pieces like this one – although perhaps it’s wrong to call it that, as the only early link between its cast of characters is Charlie, the supermarket delivery driver. We know at outset that Charlie’s had a troubled past, a history that’s slowly revealed – when he’s not too keen on the company of others, his new job is pretty much ideal with its permitted four minutes for each delivery. But, despite himself, Charlie can’t help but get involved with the lonely people he delivers groceries to on Hope Street.
There’s Ruth with her three bottles of vodka a week (but just one in her supermarket delivery), her kitchen surfaces covered with electrical items collected from the tip that she brings home to repair, and a real depth of sadness; grandfather Vik, recently widowed, cooks sumptuous meals every Friday for a family who never visit; Greg writes a successful blog, nominated for a prestigious award, on travel possibilities for people with disabilities. The thing they share is loneliness, and their personal stories gradually become clearer – and Charlie just wants to do what he can to make their lives better.
And that’s not the whole cast – Charlie’s also part of a delivery team, and works out of a depot where he needs to interact with “the management” and the other drivers. They’re all equally wonderfully drawn – the less than conventional mother-to-be, the cocky one who’s out to get him for stealing his delivery route, the team that loads the vans, the manager with his clipboard enforcing the rules.
The writing is outstanding – it’s a story that had the potential to be rather flat and depressing, but the author brings a real depth and complexity to the characters and involves you, heart and soul, in their lives. There are times when it’s so joyful it makes your heart sing, other moments when you ache inside – you find yourself welling up about life’s injustices, at the capacity for human kindness, the profound impact the smallest of interventions can have on the lives of others. As well as the exceptional warmth, there’s humour too – and a real lightness of touch about the most serious of issues, never inappropriate, perfectly judged. The pace increases considerably towards the end – a mystery that we’re always aware of plays out with tension and real drama, superbly handled, so very well done.
Although this isn’t a story that pulls any punches over issues some might find uncomfortable at times, it’s quite gloriously hopeful and uplifting – the depression, loneliness and guilt is beautifully balanced by love, kindness, forgiveness, new possibilities and the shining light of hope, and I adored every moment. I read this book in a single sitting – there was just no way I could walk away from those characters until the story reached its end. And then I’ll admit I felt quite bereft – these people had become my friends, so real that I felt entirely invested in their lives and futures. Don’t miss this book – it’s something very special indeed, and I absolutely loved it.
I’m not always a fan of “perfect for fans of” recommendations, and I’m not sure I entirely agree with the comparisons drawn by the publishers – Jenny Colgan, Veronica Henry and Beth O’Leary. But perhaps if you enjoyed Richard Roper’s Something to Live For, or The 24-Hour Cafe by Libby Page – Anna Stuart has her own particular and very special touch, and you’re really going to love this one.
About the author
I wanted to be an author from the moment I could pick up a pen and was writing boarding-school novels by the age of nine. I made the early mistake of thinking I ought to get a ‘proper job’ and went into Factory Planning – a career that gave me some wonderful experiences, amazing friends and even a fantastic husband, but didn’t offer much creative scope.
So when I stopped to have children I took the chance to start the ‘improper job’ of writing. During the baby years I wrote in the brief gaps provided by sleeps, playschools and obliging grandparents, publishing short stories and serials in all the women’s magazines.
But my ultimate aim was to write longer fiction and several years ago I published a series of successful historical novels under the pseudonym Joanna Courtney. I will continue to publish under that name but am delighted, as Anna Stuart, to also be able to write contemporary fiction. Bonnie and Stan, the first of these, is a true to life romance set in both the present day and sixties Liverpool.