British author (born in London, living in Brighton) Sarah Rayner’s third novel One Moment, One Morning — her first to be sold in the U.S. — begins with an unexpected, nonviolent death three pages into the book. Wake up, reader! Not that you were even thinking about sleeping. The narrator isn’t. She is on the 7:44 a.m. commuter train, along with a lot of other people, and only pretending to doze while she takes in details about her coincidental companions. The sudden death of one of those other commuters reverberates through the rest of the book, as three women affected directly or indirectly by it are drawn into each other’s lives.
Rayner emphasizes the density and speed of the reverberations with chapters titled by days of the week, and numerous subsections by times of day. She draws a clear picture of each protagonist’s needs, goals, and challenges. As one woman and then another and then another finally behaves out of character, the major scenes unfold. The big questions — and suspense — in the book revolve around whether the uncharacteristic behaviors, when they do occur, will prove to be beneficial or disastrous to the people involved.
Karen, the bereaved widow, has been left to finish raising two young children without the father they loved. Anna, her friend and the children’s godmother, does what she can to be supportive while attending to her job and worrying about the longevity of her own domestic situation with an alcoholic boyfriend. Lou, single and a lesbian, is feeling the emptiness of having few people she will talk openly with. The three women, all in their early thirties, are respectful of the pressures on each other. Even as they battle their own demons, they devote emotional space to others. Each character’s “moment” occurs during a different time of day — Karen’s in the morning, Anna’s at night, and Lou’s in the afternoon.
Flashbacks appear out of nowhere, highlighting the emotional power of memories, as each character works on herself and moves through the week following the unexpected death. There are many themes in One Moment, One Morning, including but not limited to how we handle feelings of guilt, how our different natures need not prevent us from and may even encourage forming strong bonds with others, and how our families, friends, and responsibilities help us cope with changes even as they so often make us want to grumble or scream. The main theme may be that we are never alone.