Contacts by Mark Watson

You might be sceptical about the feasibility of writing a novel about a desperate man on the brink of suicide and making it both funny and sensitive, but with his most recent novel, Mark Watson proves that it's possible. The central character of Contacts is James Chiltern, a gentle, affable man whose world has been steadily falling apart.

His father has died, his girlfriend Michaela has left him, he's been sacked from his job by his former best friend and he's estranged from his ambitious, hyper-efficient sister. James isn't an oddball or a misfit - in general, people like him. He's simply the type of quiet, self-doubting introvert who doesn't naturally have a huge circle of friends, so when his closest relationships start to fall away one by one, he's left feeling painfully alone and unable to see any way out that involves remaining alive. So James boards an overnight sleeper train to Edinburgh, sends a text to every contact in his phone to explain what's he's done, and then switches the phone off. 

The rest of the book deals partly with the events building up to James's decision, and partly with the fallout from it and its effect on his family and friends. His sister Sal, a productivity and time management expert living in Australia, is immediately disorientated by a problem that, from the other side of the world, she's powerless to solve. Michaela has moved to Germany with her new partner Phillip, who finds his stoicism tested by his girlfriend's sudden fixation on her ex's welfare. There's Karl, who realises that sacking James might have been a terrible mistake, and - perhaps my favourite of all James's contacts - there's the formidably efficient and determined Steffi, the Dutch lodger he barely knows but who rises brilliantly to the challenge of finding James through social media alone.

All the characters have considerable flaws and yet I felt genuinely fond of the main players by the end of the book as they learn some lessons about their own relationships, insecurities and mistakes. By the time I reached the last page I felt as if I knew them. 

Despite the subject matter, there's an understated quietness to this book. It never feels overwrought, and it's all the better for it - James has come to a decision and planned his exit carefully, and the closest he's got to a conspicuous emotional breakdown is a single occasion on which he cries in front of a mildly surprised Steffi one night. The depiction of depression in Contacts feels to me to be one of the most realistic I've read in fiction, and I think most readers would find it easy to imagine themselves in James's shoes.

If you've ever been in one of those terrible coffee shops that boasts of having no WiFi 'to encourage conversation' or worked with someone who thinks everything should be a meeting instead of an email, you'll be aware that there are many people who think smartphones and social media are a cause of loneliness and a lack of meaningful human connection. Contacts, however, suggests the opposite is true. James, simply by owning a smartphone, carries almost everyone he knows in his pocket, and it's social media that facilitates Steffi's plan to save him. We make our human connections in different ways, and one way is just as valid as the next.

Contacts is a funny, thoughtful and compassionate book. It's never sentimental or schmaltzy, for which I was extremely grateful - sometimes it's very sad, and sometimes it's full of hope and determination, but there's also a pleasing pragmatism about it which I greatly enjoyed. Mark Watson has struck a very delicate and successful balance with Contacts, and I'm looking forward to reading more of his novels.