Thursday, August 18, 2011


Eleven has become my most favorite fictional book I have read this year. What a terrific book. I finished it and really wanted to just go right back to the beginning and start again. I have recommended it to several people, a couple whom have read it and enjoyed it as well (the others haven't read it yet to my knowledge).

Eleven is about the unusually named Xavier Ireland, nee Chris Cotswold, a native Australian living in London where he works as a late night radio talk show host with his co-host, the stammering Murray. Xavier lives a quiet, lonely life outside of work, indulging in a traditional weekend Scrabble tournament, and tries to steer clear of deep involvement with people's personal lives, even as he dispenses advice on his talk show.

The title Eleven comes from the eleven lives that are influenced by a non-decision Xavier makes early in the book. A young child is being bullied by a bunch of schoolmates. Xavier makes a half-hearted attempt to break it up but ultimately leaves the kid to his own fate. This starts a chain of events that concludes with a very unexpected yet appropriate and moving ending.

This concept could easily be done in a very ham-handed way with "fate" being forced down the reader's throats and coincidences that are just too far-fetched to swallow. Mark Watson, though, does it with a tremendous elegance, creating a literary "butterfly effect". If you're not familiar with the theory, it is the idea that the breeze that a butterfly stirs with its wings in one part of the world, has an influence on the air currents and weather patterns in other parts of the world in ways we cannot fathom. So it is with this novel.

The story can really be summed up by one line in it, a line that seems like a throwaway line about two-thirds of the way through the book:

Everything has a chance of mattering.

Action or an absence of action has impacts in ways we cannot possibly fathom as Watson shows how the smallest things can escalate then ebb. A minor irritation makes us grumpy and our snappish comment to a stranger may in turn set off other events.

Beyond the study of fate and the influence of one person on another, this book is great because of Watson's characters. They are charmingly flawed starting with Xavier Ireland. We eventually find why Ireland has left Australia and changed his name and why he seems so set on being uninvolved. There's Murray (whoever heard of a stammering radio DJ?). The love interest, Pippa, who Xavier meets at a speed dating event and initially hires to clean his apartment. She is a former Olympic caliber athlete who now struggles to care for her recently impregnated sister. There's the neighbors; an upstairs couple who endlessly quarrel and seem abusive, and the downstairs single mother with the ultra-hyperactive toddler. The folks from Ireland's past. The depressed regular caller to Ireland's show. The restaurant reviewer who is the mother of the aforementioned bullied child. The realtor with bad breath.

The book is primarily about Ireland but these other characters flit in and out of the story, each with their own lives that don't seem to have anything to do with Xavier's but each doing or not doing something that impacts someone else.

I loved this book. I found it inspirational in an odd way. I think it is exquisitely crafted and well thought out. Even the ending, which is shocking and emotional, is perfect. The characters are human and modern. I honestly cannot think of a single negative thing to say about this book. Please read it.

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