Once upon a time, in 1990, Jan Mark published a book called FINDERS KEEPERS. I read it at the time and no longer remember much about it but I did remember thinking: How did she do this? The intricacies of the plot seemed to me to be so amazing that I was in awe. There are six stories which all happen at the same time in the same place. Each is about one person. All six know what is happening to them but none of them knows why, because they never find out what the others are up to. Now here comes Eleanor Updale, more than twenty years later, and out-Marks Mark. As a friend of Jan’s, I wish every day that she were still alive but when I read this, I was really annoyed that she wouldn’t be able to read a book that is just the sort of thing she’d have enjoyed.
Full disclosure: Eleanor Updale is also a friend of mine, but I wouldn’t be recommending a book if I didn’t sincerely admire it and think others would like it too. I felt, the minute I read it in proof, that I had to draw it to the attention of as many people as possible. There are two kinds of books in the world: those you can imagine writing and those that you couldn’t write to save your life. THE LAST MINUTE falls into the latter category. What would be quite beyond me would be the organization of the multi-stranded plot. This is high concept stuff….high wire high concept stuff. It requires such careful concentration and thought that some writers (like me) would faint at the prospect of what they'd have to do to make it work.
Here’s the pitch: an explosion happens at 9.21 am. From 9.20 to 9.21 is 60 seconds. Updale has taken a kind of snapshot of that minute - a sort of bird’s eye view and an in-depth look at the same time - and given it to us in 60 short chapters. She’s recorded what’s happening, second by second, to a whole bunch of people of all ages and stations. That might sound easy but it’s not. We meet LOTS of characters. Each of them has something going on. Each of them has something they want/don’t want/are scared of/are longing for/are enduring and we follow them all to the bitter end. And we know the end is bitter because we are told this on the cover and in the blurb. There’s quite a lot we don’t know as well. Who caused the explosion? Why? Who will die? Who will survive? It’s a simply brilliant idea and it’s perfectly executed: humorously, movingly, excitingly and without any surplus detail or description. There is not an ounce of spare prose on this text. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is worrying. You are, as a reader, constantly in a fret, wanting to cry out to various people and tell them not to do something they’re doing. The ‘he’s behind you’ impulse is very strong throughout; wanting to warn is a instinct it’s hard to stifle and even though characters in a book can’t hear you, I did find myself mentally yelling at various people as the book went along.
Everyone will have their favourite strands. I liked the joke that starts to be told at the beginning and for whose punch line you have a very long wait. I love the exercise class that’s going on behind a plate-glass window. I especially loved the writer, not getting down to work. Unlike Eleanor Updale, who has been most diligent and careful about hers. It’s a wonderfully exhilarating book and not like anything else. I salute a truly adventurous writer.Published by David Fickling Books Hardback £10.99 ISBN: 9780385616683
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