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Magnus Mills follows up his sublimely droll black comedy "The Restraint of Beasts" with another deadpan curio, "All Quiet on the Orient Express". Told from the point of view of a nameless, faceless protagonist, we follow the luckless hero as he manages to ensnare himself in a loop of obligation, misunderstanding and casual work, without ever being rude enough to escape.
Our "hero" is camping by the lakes somewhere up north at the tail end of the holiday season, enjoying a few weeks relaxation before heading off traveling. He is living simply, just him, his vintage motorbike, a small tent, and a tin of beans for his meal.
The weather begins to turn, causing all the other holidaymakers to head home, leaving the hero by himself - suddenly he becomes prone to the attention of his landlord, Mr Parker, and of the locals in the village.
The regulars at the pub he's taken a liking to seem friendly enough, to the point of buying him rounds and even enlisting him on their darts team, but they always seem to know his business and defer to his new "boss", whose bad temper is legendary around these parts.
Mr Parker offers him a little bit of casual work, starting with painting his front gate green. He is interrupted by the local milkman, who is always trying to catch the landlord for a word, but always in vain. The interruption causes the protagonist to spill the can of paint on the driveway, which he decides to tidy up by converting the splash of paint into a square.
"All Quiet on the Orient Express" is a difficult story to summarize. All the incidents and events that take place are so ordinary and innocuous when taken individually and out of context. The hero also gets to saw some wood, paint some rowing boats, replace some planks on a jetty, as well as order some groceries and flirt with Mr Parker's fifteen year old daughter. Yet each incident only serves to draw him further into a situation out of his control.
The story is told in a deceptively simple style, and it is quite easy to dash through "All Quiet on the Orient Express" in one or two sittings. Mills' speciality is to exaggerate the banality of everyday conversation to comic or sinister effect. A typical exchange goes -
"Nice place you've got here."
"Yes," He said, "We like it very much. Of course, I've been here all my life, so I don't know any different."
"But everyone who comes here says they like it."
"I'm not surprised."
As an author, Mills seems to have the knack of picking up on the underlying awkwardness in much of English small talk - after all, we are a nation brought up not to talk to strangers, and that advice seems to carry through to our adult lives as well. The stilted conversations always seem to end short or with an unseen "...", which creates the impression that something is being left unsaid, or some ghastly secret is being kept from us or the hero.
Many of the chapters end in cliffhangers, if you can call them that - a typical "cliffhanger" in "All Quiet on the Orient Express" would be "It would seem Tommy Parker had arrived in the top bar."
Gasp! Again, out of context these events seem innocuous enough, but put together have a cumulative effect, a building sense of smothering horror as the hero becomes more and more obligated and trapped.
"All Quiet on the Orient Express" is an engaging read, but it lacks the heart of "Restraint of Beasts". In his debut novel, Mills told the story of two Scottish fence builders down for a job in England with their foreman. They lived together, worked together, went to the pub together...and, in similar style, got trapped in a peculiar murderous situation together.
While the style of the first novel was virtually the same - mundane situations elevated to surreality, humdrum conversations exaggerated for comic effect - it was easier to feel sympathy for the main characters. OK, so they may have been two moronic fencers whose only interest was smoking and drinking, but their affection for one another was genuinely touching, which made it easier to root for them as they became ensnared in Mills' labyrinth.
The hero of "All Quiet on the Orient Express", however, is a victim of his own making, a nameless character with almost no back story, and virtually a cipher for Mills to hang his mystery plot. In fact, he's one of those strange characters in fiction you almost end up relishing the misfortune they encounter - basically, the hero's too polite, and if he actually stood up for himself, then he might stand a chance of escaping.
As it is, he ends up getting sucked deeper and deeper into the work ethic and the politics of a small village, and only stands up for himself once - in a tense and hilarious exchange involving ordering tins of beans.
Aside from the protagonist, the other characters are vague, and deliberately so - the nature of the story means we can only see it from the hero's point of view, and it's important that we don't know what anyone else is thinking. Plus Mills' simple style means he doesn't go in for much physical description, which leaves the reader to fill in the gaps.
"All Quiet on the Orient Express" is an engaging and devious read; while it won't last long in the hands of a regular reader, it rewards numerous re-reads. Although Mills' style is very simple, it's actually packed with detail, and it's fun picking up the clues hidden away which were missed first time around.
It also makes an excellent gift - I am actually on my third or fourth copy of the book, having given previous copies away to friends. It's always interesting to see people's reaction to the book. They're always, "Well, he's painting some boats now." and seem a bit puzzled about what they're reading or why; but something always compels them to carry on to the end...then they get it!
Well, first I have to say that this is an excellent book which haunts the reader almost from the first page. It has the same feeling of the inevitable that Mills' first book had (which IMHO is a much more rounded, better read) and the characters are very memorable. When I first started reading this book, I was put off slightly by the fact that the quotes on the front said stuff about how humourous the book was and so I was naturally assuming quite a few parallels with the other (Restraint of Beasts). The two books are similar, but I feel that this one will haunt me for a lot longer than the first. The reader very quickly builds up an understanding of the narators state of mind and you start to get a building sense of foreboding about the future of the 'hero'. The humour is present in this book, but I didn't find it as obvious as his previous work. I would highly recommend this book to people who have already read the first and enjoyed it, but if you've not read either, I would much rather suggest that you read Restraint of Beasts first as you are almost guaranteed to enjoy that book, and then you will be warmed up for this one.
This is one of the oddest books I have read but rewarding in a way I find hard to explain. The narrator finds himself increasingly drawn into a peculiar and small world of extraordinarily ordinary characters. He takes on jobs through politeness and a lack of anything better to do and finds himself, as a result, more in debt not less so to these people. For a book in which nothing seems to happen you get drawn along quite nicely. Quite what it all means I'm not really sure but it hangs around in your head in a way few other stories seem to.
Bus-driver from the Brixton depot, turns journalist, turns successful novelist. This is not the plot of a novel, rather Magnus Mills' life so far. His novels though are just as surprising, if not as cheery. I've only read this one, published in 2000 but have heard much about The Restraint of Beasts and can't wait to get my hands on it. Dooyoo know what it's like? In All Quiet, the nameless narrator, like Mills, appears to be able to turn his hand to anything. At the end of the season in the lake district, he puts off his motorbiking travel plans and stays on after the other campers have left, doing increasingly difficult oddjobs for the formidable Mr Parker. The tiny community warms to him, as does Mr Parker's teenage daughter. But trouble seems to be looming like the growing gloom in the valley. The book is full of "characters": an anxious milkman, a fella in a cardboard crown, and a terse old man, to describe but a few. We, like the narrator, find the village goings on all very quaint and amusing... at first. Although I had trouble understanding the relevance of the title for a while, I now think it's perfect, implying a lull before the storm, as well as an unstoppable train of oppressive, Christie-esque events. The subtlety of the title is upheld in the book. It works through suggestion and imagination. One last thing. Don't be put off by the apparent "blokiness" of the book. It's darts and DIY for the sensitive soul. Just not too sensitive!
A menacing and yet funny book about a man camping in a lakeside community with more secrets than he realises.