In the village no mobile phone can get a signal. There is a huge storm. The wind blows down the telephone wires carrying the landline signal. When the lines are restored, everyone’s phone signals go to the wrong subscriber’s house. Outgoing calls also go astray. Nicholls poses the questions how people will respond to this telephone crisis and whether by chance it might engender a closer sense of community as people take calls from random strangers.
The villagers include Margaret, the village organiser engaged in setting up the May Fair, the Cubs – a cinema club – and the Women’s Institute. A boy named Will is grateful for the telephone malfunction, since his mother’s phone is often used to inform her what trouble her son is currently in. An old lady living alone is Jean. She is concerned that she can’t call for help if she needs it. A young woman tries to call a young man who appeals to her. She can’t contact him but she gets through to Jean, who by good fortune will act as a matchmaker.
The novel contrasts the world where automated systems are working well with the more chaotic world where the same systems behave in a haphazard and unpredictable way. The author is of course quite aware that such breakdowns in automated systems do occur in the real world. This book makes an enjoyable read, with telling support from Dempsey’s illustrations. But readers who are familiar with Nicholls’s earlier work (such as Things a Bright Girl Can Do) will know that she is capable of deploying convincing characters in a far broader context. The characters who bestride this little book constantly remind the reader that they would be at home in a more ambitious landscape.