JAM by Jake Wallis Simons

One Night. One Road. So Many Stories.

Book review by Patricia Cleveland-Peck.

It is a device which has been used in works ranging from The Decameron to Ann Pratchett’s Bel Canto – throw a disparate group of people into a unexpected situation of enforced intimacy and listen to their stories. If the situation results from something dramatic and there is there is the added edge of danger, so much the better – as numerous directors of disaster movies have discovered. The perennial appeal of this frame is that within it, “people who’d normally never mix together” can be relied upon to reveal their secret lives more freely at the same time as displaying both the best and the worst sides of their characters.

In Jam the most innovative feature is Jake Wallis Simons’s setting, the M25 motorway, on which the vehicles of the participants are stuck overnight in an unexplained traffic jam beyond the range of mobile phone signals. This effectively forms a neutral, limited world cut off from reality in which they are trapped. In this book however, one feels the motorway is something more, almost an extended metaphor for twenty- first century life.

Further, making this very motorway the obsession of one of the characters enables the author to introduce a number of details about it which could easily have shown up as too much research. He not only gets away with it but even makes the M25 sound rather fascinating by giving the lines to a nerdy but lovable character, the 63 year old Scots Quaker, Harold, present on the road in his camper van.

The book in fact, works so well because of the skill with which the characters are drawn. In novels involving groups it can be easy to confuse the protagonists but here from the outset we are given a clear sharp, not always pleasant, view of each individual – their vehicles playing telling supporting roles.

We meet the bickering couple Ursula and Max in their Chrysler Voyager, their stress levels high because not only is their marriage in difficulties but also they are responsible for two small children, one of which ( a brilliantly cameo of a ghastly kid) belongs to someone else; poor Waitrose Jim, the breaching of whose delivery van full of goodies one fears for; Rhys, Chris and Monty in a white van, a trio which inspire fear from the outset but are not all quite what they seem; Stevie, driving an arthritic Ford Estate, together with two fellow students, Dave and Natalie “ a black girl, with plaits” whom they abuse; Shahid, a disappointed would-be footballer with his mates Kabir and Mo in his Granddad’s old Peugeot; Shauna, in her Smart Car, a 30s professional woman on her way back from the wedding of an ex at which she has made an utter fool of herself; Popper the troubled army officer in his Golf GTI; the tiny Chinese bug specialist Dr Hsaio May in her Prius and lorry drive Tomasz.

Tensions mount as the hours pass with no explanation for the delay, hunger and thirst set in and waves of fear begin to surge to and fro amongst the participants. Nevertheless as day breaks and things begin to return to normal we find that life changing decisions have been made, some have found love, some friendship, some reconciliation. None of them ares quite the same as when s/he set out.

Jam is a well-structured, well-written book which peoples a bizarre situation with credible characters and provides a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable read.

Published by Polygon @ £12.99.