Once, descending a steep escalator, I spotted a long lost school friend going up.
She waited for me to get back to the top, and an old friendship, which lasts to this day, was fortuitously renewed. Had one of us been a few seconds later, we'd never have seen each other again. The long-term effects of such accidental encounters form the basis of Mark Watson's excellent novel.
His hero is Xavier Ireland, an Australian DJ covering the graveyard shift on a London radio station. Here, he listens attentively and dispenses gentle advice to sleepless callers – people such as Clive, a depressed teacher, and Iris, a jolly east London pensioner. Their stories play out against his own daytime life, in which he resolutely resists involving himself with anyone in trouble, specifically with Frankie, a boy he fails to save from being beaten up by thugs. And it's thanks to this latter incident that events in 11 people's lives are subtly twitched, and begin their own spiralling interactions – which eventually come back to impact, dramatically, upon Xavier.
Xavier's sidekick, a hopeless fellow whose stutter makes him radically unsuited to broadcasting, inveigles him into going speed dating. As a result, Xavier meets Pippa, a no-nonsense Geordie with plenty of her own problems, who arrives to clean his flat and stays on, eventually forcing him to confront the traumatic events in his past which have caused his emotional paralysis. She is an enormous, dynamic force, and she teaches him, among many other things, the art of efficient vacuuming (not as easy as you'd think), while he in return introduces her to the wily skills required to succeed at Scrabble.
Eleven's plot is complicated, but it works. Xavier is central, but each of the many minor characters is sharply sketched and believable. And underneath all of these hectic, metropolitan, cosmopolitan lives pulses the strong Forsterian sense that we need to connect; that even very small, cowardly, or casually cruel actions can have devastating impacts, but also that redemption, however fragile, is sometimes possible – if you work at it.
Jot Davies is a superb reader of the tale, switching seamlessly and apparently effortlessly from Aussie to Geordie to Cockney to posh to agonising stammer. His performance is sensitive and subtle, and the most accomplished I've heard for a long time. It is a tour de force.