This is a novel about people receiving messages from their deceased relatives, friends, and business associates, and what the reaction is of their neighbors, the rest of the town, and the world at large. But it is first and foremost a novel about communication, and about a form of communication invented by a man with deaf relatives who could not hear his voice on the phone. I found it a good book, but in parts too dramatic to be a great book.
Near the first of September in the small town of Coldwater, Michigan (very far north in the state, and by this time, the sports fishermen have left for the season), on a Friday, a woman’s phone rings; as she can’t catch the phone in time, it goes to her answering machine, and she hears the voice of her mother, who died four years ago. The small town’s police chief gets a call from his son, who died in Afghanistan on his third tour of duty, and a woman calls her Baptist preacher with the news that she got a call from her sister, who died two years ago. And a man gets out of prison and is greeted by his parents and his young son, but not his wife.
These phone calls (and several others), and this man’s release from prison, mark the beginning of something new in this small town, a debate about communication that spirals out of control once it hits the media and the Internet. In the coming weeks (the story takes us to the end of the year), with calls coming from what seems to be the afterlife (always on Fridays), the question of whether the calls are real or somehow faked or a hoax consumes the town. It also consumes Sullivan Harding, the man just released from prison, who sets himself on a quest to disprove life after death because his young son is now waiting to hear from Mommy in Heaven on a toy phone.
Most of the chapters of the book are preceded with sidebars about Alexander Graham Bell and his invention of the telephone, which during his lifetime connected people separated by miles and oceans, but which was unable to connect people in the deaf community, to which Bell was devoted; a communication device is not of much use if you cannot communicate with the person you wish to contact.
I did enjoy reading this book, although it would appear that the author is no fan of institutionalized Catholicism (the local Catholic priest, who heads the largest church in town, is immeasurably pleased that the first call from Heaven came to a Catholic – albeit a lapsed Catholic, but a Catholic just the same). And the last few chapters, while riveting, were almost too dramatic for my taste.