If there were ever a time to take a minute (or five hundred) to truly appreciate the work that our delivery drivers do, well, a pandemic is most certainly it. In Anna Stuart’s Four Minutes to Save a Life, Charlie Sparrow, is the newest delivery driver to join the ranks of Turner’s Supermarkets. He is instructed that four minutes is all that he has to spend with each and every customer. Of course, anybody in customer service can tell you that when people need to talk – they need to talk. So, as he works his designated route, he soon finds that there is a lot to be hidden behind our seemingly closed doors. Indeed, through the mundane activity of having a weekly food shop delivered, this book casts a light on how the smallest of gestures can have the biggest of impacts.
The book opens with Charlie Sparrow burning all of his possessions in his back garden after a mental health crisis. A court case with an innocent sentence is alluded to, yet, the details are withheld. Against his family’s expectations, he begins working as a delivery driver for Turner’s Supermarkets. On his aptly named route, Hope Row, three customers quickly capture his attention; the alcoholic Ruth; the widow Vikram and the disabled blogger Greg. Whilst delivering their weekly groceries, Charlie comes to learn that Ruth has taken leave from her work as an electrician to deal with the death of her only daughter. Instead she fixes appliances found at the local tip and embraces the solace of a 1 litre vodka bottle. Charlie similarly discovers that, since his wife’s death, Vikram’s guilt is his only company each night. He cooks his curries for five, yet, eats his meals alone, as his son is too preoccupied to spare the time. Finally, having been left disabled after a horrific work accident, Greg keeps up appearances by becoming an inspirational travel blogger. Cooking exotic Thai dishes and writing ‘nothing can stop you’ posts about his travel adventures, Greg finds that he has garnered the vapid attention of social influencers. Though no one can see the physical struggles he faces alone. Linking them all is their delivery man Charlie, who harbours a paralysing secret all of his own. Eventually, they each realise that sometimes, just sometimes, four minutes is all it takes to keep loneliness at bay.
I really liked the premise of this book. It made me think about the unexpected roles people can play in our lives and how even a brief interaction can allow us to re-frame the things that bring us pain. The sad truth is, however, that this isolation is very real and it is something that has only been acerbated by Covid-19. Whether it’s a delivery driver for Tesco’s or a customer support executive for Trainline, often this interaction is the only conversation many people will have for entire weeks. As such, Anna Stuart has created some very believable characters that all deal with their loneliness in different ways. Vikram’s character particularly struck a cord with me however. He reminded me of that niggling guilt I used to carry when I hadn’t visited my gran in a number of days and how, when I eventually made it round, she would have a banquet of food ready and waiting for me. For me at least, there was something about Vikram’s isolation that felt particularly prudent to today’s social priorities. We are frequently quick to dismiss the old and so often forget that loneliness can be one of the biggest killers. Equally, I sympathised with Greg’s struggle to deal with his disability and exert a superficial sheen of positivity on social media. Essentially, this title encapsulates that old adage ‘no one knows what happens behind closed doors’, and it urges you to think that maybe we should try.
I was given this book to provide an honest review and, so, that is what I shall do. Although this title has been promoted as a “heartwarming” read by several Goodreads reviewers, I do have to question whether these people have read an entirely different book to me. This title absolutely oozes with pathos; so much so, I had to put it down once or twice from crying too much. Though this is no bad thing, I do have to disclaim that this is not a “feel good” book, no matter what its cute cover might make you think. This is a book about serious mental health issues and the touching moments that can come dispersed in-between them. In truth, I did not cry because this book was particularly standout. I cried because it reminded me of all the people I love suffering from crippling depression. Due to this, the pace of this title is necessarily slow and, at times, it is repetitive. I liked Stuart’s characters, but I often felt it would have been more engaging to streamline the cast and focus solely on Charlie and Ruth’s relationship. The change in perspectives became a little monotonous and I think, selfishly, I could have done with an emotional break from the onslaught of tortured thoughts. Equally, this must be how those suffering feel.
In the midst of a global pandemic, this discussion of loneliness amongst society’s most vulnerable is evermore important. This title skilfully brings to life all those mental health campaigns that state a simple ‘how’re you doing?’ can be enough to disrupt someone’s suicidal thoughts. Stuart’s cast of characters find commonalities in their loneliness and serve to demonstrate that random acts of kindness can transform lives. Let us not forget our compassion and empathy in these troubled times…
…and stop stealing old folks’ delivery slots.