Oh good God, I was not expecting that... I must confess that I do like a bit of "grief-lit" and the catharsis that it brings, so this subject was always likely to take us off into that territory. Boy was I wrong. I'm sure some will still "enjoy" the emotional twang that Roberts gives you in places, but this is so much, much more than that....
Before starting it I was curious as to how it was supposed to work both tragedy (it's about a dying baby and I think the title is enough of spoiler for the end as anything I could write) and humour into the same plot without coming off like a A Fault In Our Stars rip-off. Well, turns out that it was written a good ten tears before A Fault In Our Stars and was far more of an English version of A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, but shorter and less rambling.
Genuinely wet-your-pants funny in places; so tender and loving in parts that you feel you are intruding into reading a husband's love letters to his wife and if you do not cry - as it proper break down and blub like Gazza at Italia '90 - in at least 4 or 5 different places then you are probably a cold blooded sociopath with no capacity for human empathy. Oh, and the guy is a massive music snob too, so it'll keep Nick Hornby fans entertained nicely too.
For what is a relatively short book, with a very defined timeline the plot manages to give the protagonist a character arc that is often missing in modern men's literature. OK, the subject and events in the book should change the person experiencing them and it is clear that even without reading the notes at the start of the book, that this is based on his own life, but the self-awareness to develop a lead character like this is fascinating to see unfold.
The real surprise though and neigh-on master-stroke for me wasn't a twist in the plot (as I said, it's called 42 Days so have a guess when it ends) or Roberts' ability take you from laughing out loud to feeling as low as a writer can probably take you in the space of a few lines, but a literary device that he uses (and then repeats) completely without warning, to give the book an extra dimension that, while it has been used before, is put to such superb use that that alone should be enough to bring 42 Days to a massive audience. I don't want to tell you what it is as that would spoil their impact, but it really gives 42 Days a structure that sets it apart from other books that it could get categorised with - The Shock Of The Fall probably being the most obvious.
If there is one criticism, it is that the wife character is left somewhat in the background. OK, this is "Rob's" story rather than "Katie's", but a bit more insight into her would have been good.
On the surface I can understand why this book hasn't been published traditionally, but that says more about how publishers make assumptions about their readers than it does about the quality or appeal of this book. A book about a "recovering cynic" (Roberts's words, not mine) spending 300 pages telling you about a baby that never leaves his incubator should be depressing and rather boring. But it's not. It's heart warming about neo-natal death in the way It's A Wonderful Life is heart warming about attempted suicide. This book should really be huge. It would make a cracking film too.
So if you can imagine John O'Farrell ghost writing from Nick Hornby doing an impression of John Green writing for an adult audience, then you are somewhere close. Funny - yes. Touching - yes. Uplifting - yes. Sentimental, self pitying or maudlin - Not a bit of it. With less than 2 months to go, I think I've found my book of 2015.
About the Author
AJ Roberts was born and raised in South East England. He supports Chelsea, spends far too much time watching cricket, drinking tea and babbling about nothing on Twitter. He used to be a journalist and copywriter, but now does something else. His mum still hopes he might become Pope one day. 42 Days is his first novel.