'Thomas Major, the boy who didn't die, but didn't truly live either.'
Thomas Major is travelling to Mars to be the first man to lay his feet on the planet. He's a scientist but that's not the reason why he's got a one-way ticket to a holiday destination millions of kilometres away from humanity. You see, he's fed up with Earth and the people on it. He's not interested in making amazing scientific advancements that could change the way the world sees space. He's not interested in sticking a flag in the dirt and claim first prize in the race to the red planet. All he cares about is never seeing another human-being again. He's had enough of the cruelty of life on Earth and is on his way to a lonely and peaceful solitude.
This story focuses on the question 'why do people do what they do?'. Why would someone with no experience in flying or space travel be rocketing to Mars on a one-way trip? Why does a young high school girl work three different jobs? Why does the man in space help a desperate family millions of kilometres away from where he is? A general fiction tale, Calling Major Tom by David M Barnett explores the terrible circumstances that lead people to make tough decisions… and also how a guy travels to Mars.
The words Calling Major Tom might mean something else to a few people (in case you're wondering, David Bowie is referenced in this book a few times). However, the clever name focuses around the protagonist who is rocketing to Mars: Thomas Major. He's a complex character and when we first meet him, we begin to grasp why he is the way he is. Our introduction to Thomas is when he is a child going to watch Star Wars with his dad. He's very excited because it's his birthday and he loves the sci-fi series. He can't wait to spend that time with his dad since, as most sons do, he looks up to his father. They walk into the cinema together. Before the movie starts, his father has to leave, promising Thomas he'll be 'back before you know it'. The movie starts and Thomas is all alone. This is our first impression into the world of Thomas Major.
Then, we're transported into a rocket heading towards Mars.
There is a shift in the language between the first two chapters. The first is cheery with innocent thoughts and dreams where the moon can be picked out from the sky between your finger and thumb and placed in your pocket. Then, the major switch to Thomas when he is older shows a more witty, sharp and occasionally depressing language where we can tell he has lived through a lot of sadness and has experienced the ugly side of life. Nonetheless, the humour elevates the tone from being one of utter annoyance and despair. The glimmer of happiness we receive is in his relaxed mood as we works his way through his crossword.
This novel has an omniscient narrator, which switches between a group of characters brought together by their links to Thomas. By the third chapter, we meet Gladys Ormerod who is an elderly lady with an illness that is affecting her memory. During this chapter we also meet Ellie and James, Gladys's grandchildren who she is the guardian of while their father is away. This family only know of Thomas due to the news around his trip to Mars, but a phone call from him while in outer space results in Thomas and the Ormerod family being bound together in a turbulent story.
There are other characters too, like the staff looking after Thomas as he heads up to Mars. Each play a role in piecing together the puzzle around who Thomas Major is and why he wants to leave humankind altogether. There are also a lot of flashbacks, where the timeline shifts dramatically to influential parts of his life. However, it is the events within the Ormerod family that parallel Thomas's sad past.
There is a father who is forcefully taken away from his family because he is desperate to support them. The mother is gone, so the children rely on their mentally unstable grandmother to keep them together. Ellie understands this, so she works three jobs while also studying at high school to ensure they can stay in the house and no one finds out about their situation, while James goes to a private school to help further his education in science. There is also the fact they could possibly lose their house due to Gladys unintentionally given her money to a scam. There is a lot of heavy issues within this family and it seems like nothing can ever go right for them... a very similar frame of mind to Thomas Major's.
It is when James is invited to participate in a science competition with a reward that could save his family that brings a small piece of hope into the story. And what's better for a science competition than a scientist heading to Mars?
A story about determination and persistence through life's struggles, Calling Major Tom by David M. Barnett proves that no matter what hardships you face there will always be an opportunity to change it as long as you keep yourself open to it. It's a deep and emotional tale that evokes a range of emotions from grief to joy. Humorous and witty, it's a story that highlights the importance of having people there for support and that you are never alone, even if you are millions of kilometres away from the Earth.
What I thought
When I first picked up this book, I read the blurb and thought 'this sounds like a fun-loving story about an old grumpy guy who becomes a happy nice guy because of another family'. I wasn't exactly far from the mark. However, I didn't expect to be reading a story about a guy going to Mars! I also didn't expect so much sadness. In saying that, the way Barnett weaves the emotions through his book had me absolutely hooked. It is done so beautifully that I could feel my heart breaking when there were sad scenes and my face stretching into a smile when there were happy scenes. I also laughed out loud a lot as a result of the well-crafted wit and sarcasm, so that's definitely a positive.
One aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was the authenticity of the emotions and events. The raw feelings were incredibly believable. I felt so sorry for what had happened in each character's pasts. Everyone has their own history and I know that my personal life has been full of a lot of ups and downs. Therefore, it was oddly refreshing to read a story that portrayed loss, grief and ongoing struggles in a realistic way.
In saying that, I had a small issue with the ending. Without spoiling anything, I found the ending a little too fruity and happy after the length of drama beforehand. For me, all the authenticity of the raw emotions and issues that had occurred all throughout the story had suddenly been thrown away and I was in a fairytale where everybody lived happily every after. This didn't spoil the book for me since 99% of it had me absolutely engaged and in love with the tone, style and language. It was just a little disappointing to leave it on such a happy note, which is an odd thing to say about any story I suppose!
However, the ending emphasises the main point of the story, which is no matter what you're given in life there will always be happiness if you are determined to find it. Maybe I'm just a grouchy reader who doesn't like reading about happy characters!
Since this is a general fiction story, I'd recommend this book to a mature audience because of some of the heavy themes in it. However, I think young adults would find this story enjoyable with it's witty humour and sarcasm. Also, If you're interested in reading a story that will inspire you to work hard to achieve your goals, I'd give this book a go. Even though there are some sad scenes, I felt myself feeling inspired to work hard despite any hardships I may face.
If you've read this book, what did you think of it? Also, if you were to go to Mars and you could take one thing with you, what would it be?
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.