It's odd how sometimes when you've finished one book and you pick up another, there's a sentence in the second one that arcs back across to the first.
I had finished reading Contact by Jonathan Buckley (and published by Sort Of Books) when several days later I opened February by Lisa Moore. Just thirty pages in and still finding my plot-feet, the son of the main character has just heard from an ex-girlfriend that she is expecting his baby and it was these few words as John considers his dilemma...
'A stranger might call you to account, wreck your life...'
And there I was reflecting back yet again on Contact, because that is exactly what happens.
Childless couple Dominic Patterson and his wife Aileen, now in their fifties, have been happily married for thirty or so years. Dominic is a craftsman with carpentry skills inherited from his father, though not quite bespoke enough to put him in his father's master craftsman league, so he has settled for running his own upmarket furniture retail business and has several shops to his name. Dominic's life seems contented and comfortable, moneyed and privileged but perhaps with an unspoken tinge of disappointment.
Off the street and into Dominic's life walks the rough and ready Sam Williams who alleges he is Dominic's son, the result of a a clandestine affair Dominic had in the early days of his marriage to Aileen, and thus the unravelling of Dominic's life begins.
Had the seemingly regretfully childless Dominic been able to choose a son, it would not have been Sam, that much is clear...but it all becomes much less clear cut for Dominic as Sam takes a sinister grip on his life.
I'm always pondering what might be in a title and Contact is perfect, others have picked up on it too, a single word open to multiple interpretations within the context of this book. I won't elaborate on them all because as you discover them it's as if you peel off another layer of meaning and gather in a bit more understanding, I had quite a list by the end. How often did I sit in a child protection case conference and discuss 'contact' orders between parents separated or estranged from their children for whatever reason. 'Contact' almost as bad as 'access', cold, clinical loveless words, a court order, an arrangement put in place seemingly to fulfill emotional need, but how often the artificiality of the circumstances failed to do that and often caused more problems than it resolved.
Thus began this reader's supervision of those contact sessions between Dominic and Sam, because somehow Jonathan Buckley cleverly pitched me right in there. I was perched on Dominic's shoulder and alternately whispering in his ear and shouting my loudest as Sam started his manipulation...note where my sympathies seemed to rest.
But perhaps Sam really is who he says he is?
Well the waters are well and truly muddied as his behaviour shifts from oddly sinister, to malevolent to stalking to befriending and poor Dominic is psychologically all over the shop as he desperately tries to recall the past, whilst struggling to exert some control over the present and preserve his future.
Sam is ripe for some amateur psychiatric diagnosis and I just couldn't stop myself.
I had him down as a complex personality disorder with a wide range of sociopathic tendencies, all profoundly disturbing as his astute skills in manipulation, his ready response to any paternity doubt expressed by Dominic, along with his violent outbursts and so much more all seem to demonstrate. I didn't trust him further than I could throw him, but still...
Sam is an 'ex-squaddie' who has served in Northern Ireland and Iraq so perhaps there's room for some post-traumatic stress disorder too, that might explain a great deal.
Except now Sam is a builder ...and not a cowboy either, a real craftsman in fact, and this is where the book throws up some of its most interesting undercurrents, because perhaps the reader spots what Dominic fails to.
When people tell me I am the spitting image of one of my children I can't see it myself, so was I spotting those similarities between Dominic and this man purporting to be his son, and which Dominic might be blind to himself ?
Or was I imagining them?
Sam's mother Sarah gave him up for adoption and it is abundantly clear he is not in Dominic's social grouping, but if Dominic were to be his father is he showing a genetic likeness and displaying those inherited skills?
Dominic's mother Sarah had suffered from mental health problems, in Dominic's words 'she wasn't always the steadiest vessel'
Is this nature versus nurture at work?
Is Sam in fact a 50/50 genetic likeness to them both?
And if so is Sam perhaps also revealing a hidden side to Dominic's personality now well-concealed by a lifetime of social and self-control?
So many interesting questions to ask and I've only given you the bare bones, a book group could really go to town on this one, but you can guess by now I was completely drawn in by the whole lot and Contact became my first really unputdownable book of 2010. There's a sort of quiet but steady build up of psycho-sub-thriller menace here which had me completely hooked and my sympathies were hither and thither and a bit like poor old Dominic, all over the place.
I also kept on reading through the early pages of frequent expletives which is unusual for me. If you deem these offensive (and I often do if they seem in any way gratuitous) I would just suggest that if you can shelve your scruples and stay with it, hold judgement until you are much deeper into the book, then you will be rewarded; their purpose will slowly become clear as an essential aspect of Jonathan Buckley's character development for Sam and also his plot.
There is real psychological depth to this book which paid dividends for me and I now plan a return to Jonathan Buckley's previous novel So He Takes the Dog which I gave up on too readily and now think perhaps I shouldn't have done. I was clearly only paddling in the shallows whilst the hidden depths awaited and now I've taken the plunge I'm ready for more, because I have a feeling there is a great deal to miss as you read a Jonathan Buckley novel.