Tuesday 12 April 2011

All Quiet on the Orient Express

Fellow bloggers, I'm sure you know this feeling - you read a book, enjoyed it, put it on one side to write about... and by the time you get to writing about it, almost all the details have left your head. Right? That's not a very inspiring opening to a blog review, but it will set your expectations at the right level as I start to talk about All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999) by Magnus Mills, which I read, ahem, last November.

About a year ago I wrote a review of Magnus Mills' The Maintenance of Headway, and my general opinion was that, although that novel didn't work for me, I felt that there was something about Mills. And that I definitely would like something else by him. In stepped Annabel, who lent me All Quiet on the Orient Express... which I had so long that she said I could pass it on to a charity shop... oops, sorry Annabel...

The unnamed narrator is coming to the end of a camping holiday at Mr. Parker's camp site in the Lake District, preparing to head off on the Orient Express (which I think might have been thrown in just for that wonderful title) when the novel opens. That seems a good place to start.

"I thought I'd better catch you before you go," he said. "Expect you'll be leaving today, will you?"

"Hadn't planned to," I replied.

"A lot of people choose to leave on Monday mornings."

"Well, I thought I'd give it another week, actually. The weather seems quite nice."

"So you're staying on then?"

"If that's alright with you."

"Of course it is," he said. "You're welcome to stay as long as you like."

It seems a good deal, to our narrator, when Mr. Parker offers to knock a bit off the rent in return for Narrator (as I shall call him, for want of an alternative. Unless he is named and I somehow missed it) doing the odd handyman job here and there.

The 'here and there' becomes more frequent, and the tasks more laborious. Most of them seem to involve Mr. Parker's endless supply of green paint - everything from fences to boats apparently require coating in the stuff. Everything is on account, as it were, and Narrator's involvement with the family and the community grows deeper and deeper... whether he'd like it to or not. He joins a forceful darts team, he becomes a regular at the pub (which doesn't always have his favourite drink; nor does the grocer have the biscuits he wants) and, all the time, the Parker family get him to perform more and more handyman jobs... All Quiet on the Orient Express is a bizarre cautionary tale for those (like myself) who find it impossible to say 'no'...

What makes Magnus Mills' writing so enjoyable is its eccentricity. The actual characters and events are surprisingly grounded, when you consider them in the abstract. There are no Dickensian grotesques (even the man who constantly wears a cracker paper-crown turns out to have a fairly reasonable excuse) nor are the motivations of characters unduly wacky - but the dialogue certainly is. It is spare, yet like the excerpt above, it is often repetitive and confusing, trailing round and round in circles without getting anywhere. Lots of unnecessary questions and characters repeating what the others say. It all adds to the claustrophobia of the place, and is done cleverly - so that it gives this effect without annoying the reader.

If I just-about liked The Maintenance of Headway, then I definitely much liked All Quiet on the Orient Express. I still feel that there is potential for me to love Mills, and I have The Restraint of Beasts on my shelf that will hopefully reach that standard. But even without being completely in love with this novel, I think it is incredibly good - and Mills' writing is so different from almost all other contemporary writers. The only modern comparison I can think of is Edward Carey (see below). It's the sort of quirky, strange-but-not-macabre-or-silly writing that I yearn to find, and so rarely do.

Thanks Annabel for lending it to me; sorry I've had it so long! If anyone who likes or loves Mills can recommend similar authors to me (less silly than Pratchett, and not macabre at all, please) then I'd be delighted.

Books to get Stuck into:

Observatory Mansions - Edward Carey: I've recommended Alva & Irva so often that I thought I should make a change. Francis works as a 'living statue' and is also horribly selfish, stealing/collecting objects that people love. Totally surreal, but brilliant.

The Skin Chairs - Barbara Comyns: not quite the same style, but enough odd, quirky elements - from those skin chairs on - to make worth suggesting in the same breath as Mills.


  1. I'm so glad you got on with this one Simon. It's so sinister without trying to be, and everyone is so trapped I just loved it. The restraint of beasts is similarly macabre so I hope you enjoy that one too. I'm looking forward to reading Observatory Mansions ...

  2. I rather enjoyed Magnus Mill's when I read The Maintenance of Headway (I think if I hadnt been living in London at the time I might not have loved it so much) after Kimbofo had raved about him. I funnily enough haven't read anything else of his since. I think I have a few somewhere too. I shall have to have a root around.

    I need to discuss the cover though, I really like it (and the title actually) - it reminds me of a kids book I used to have, so is a nicely nostalgic looking cover.

  3. Well you wrote quite an intriguing review. I want to read it! I find the title very intriguing, and the eccentricity is appealing, and I think we all know some of those folks who can't say no. Thanks for the tip.

  4. The cover doesn't seem to match the review - I thought when I saw it that you were about to review a children's book. I guess that's what I get for falling into the trap of "judging a book by its cover." :) Nice review, btw.

  5. Ah I'd almost forgotten this too. I read 'em all, and this was definitely my fave.
    The Restraint of Beasts is pretty macabre, but so purposely understated that you hardly notice... :)
    The only other book this reminded me of was Tepper isn't going out - it's the same sort of matter-of-fact storytelling through dialogue, narrating the actual events but not the reasons for them or the reasoning or emotions of the characters. Lots left to the imagination and your own interpretation, which I like, although Mills is a pretty extreme example!

  6. So glad to hear you gave him a second go... Mills is one of my favourite authors, simply because he captures the eccentricities of the English so well and writes in a really "odd" deceptively simple style. One of my favourites is "Three to see the King" which has a real Kafkaesque quality to it. All my Magnus Mills' reviews are here: http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/authors_magnus_mills/

  7. Annabel - so sorry it took me so long to write my review! I have The Restraint of Beasts waiting for me, so it'll be my next Mills.

    Simon - I love the cover too - it looks like one of those Puffin early learning books, which is quite fun. If you enjoyed Maintenance of Headway, I think you'd definitely like this.

    Julia - hope you enjoy this! Being someone who can't say no makes life perilous enough as it is, so I was a bit worried to read this cautionary tale...

    Susan - thanks! The cover is like a children's book, but I find it endearing :)

    Mel - Tepper Isn't Going Out is a great comparison, I wish I'd thought of that! Review of it will be appearing here soon...

    Kim - oo, I've not even heard of Three to see the King, will have to seek that one out. Thanks for the link!


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