A young man is killed in a single car road accident on the A9 north of Inverness. For anyone who reads the Scottish news, this is, sadly, not an uncommon event. The entire length of the A9 has an unforgiving reputation, well justified by accident statistics. But the length from Inverness over the Kessock Bridge, the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth is one of the scariest in Scotland. This is the result of the style of too much of the driving, combined with with the nature of the road. So when the fictional Calum Ross dies at 1:32pm on the afternoon of 5 January 1996 he is following in the skid marks of many real life victims.
"If I Touched the Earth" by Cynthia Rogerson takes Calum's death and shows us the effect it has on those around him. We meet Zara, Calum's secret girlfriend, who spends night after night at the spot where he was killed, planting and tending a roadside memorial to him. We meet William and Finn, friends of Calum's and pallbearers at his funeral. We also meet Neal, who shared a house with Calum and his mum when Calum was small. Most of all, however, we meet Alison, Calum's mum, as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her only son.
Neal is married, and when he and Alison meet at the funeral, for the first time in many years, it sparks chains of consequences for each of them that are compellingly unpredictable. For much of the book we alternate between Alison and Neal, seeing the world through the eyes of each in turn as events unfold, with regular diversions to see how less central characters are getting on with their lives in the absence of Calum. One unexpected character is the A9 itself: "If the A9 was a person, it would be named Morag and be about 62. A modest, post-menopausal woman, with occasional flashes of real beauty... Though in certain places...the A9 is more like a maddening seventeen-year-old called Josh, daring you to open it up; overtake that Volvo estate, that combine harvester..."
Cynthia Rogerson has written a touching and intriguing book. The reader is drawn into the stories of her central characters as they revolve around and away from one another; and towards a conclusion that is both genuinely surprising and unexpectedly satisfying. What really makes this book special for us is the remarkable sense of place the comes off the pages. The publisher's notes say that Cynthia Rogerson lives in the Scottish Highlands: we're betting this is somewhere that brings her into frequent contact with the length of the A9 around which much of this story is set and the communities that are strung out along and beside it.