Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2016

On the Blue Train, by Kristel Thornell

on-the-blue-trainIt took me longer than expected to read this book, an imagining of the celebrated 11-day disappearance of the author Agatha Christie, a mystery which remains unsolved to this day. Kristel Thornell’s On the Blue Train is not a whodunit, it’s a whydunit, and it’s basically a slow meditation on relationships, past, present and emerging.

Like most books creating fiction from the life of a real person, it is IMO best read on its own terms rather than fossicking around to see how it matches up with what is known of the real life.  Since nothing is known anyway about how Christie under her alias Teresa Neele spent her eleven days at the Harrogate Hydro, the plot allows for the creation of an assortment of characters, much like any of the ‘hotel novels’ I have read, hotels in this genre being the sort of places where well-heeled people stay for quite long periods of time, and crucially, offering opportunities for the characters to get to know each other.  (See Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield, or The Little Hotel by Christina Stead).

It’s often a feature of novels set in these hotels, that the characters have something to hide.  While they might go out to see the sights, as Thornell’s characters do, that’s not why they are there.  In On the Blue Train they are running away from themselves, hoping to reinvent themselves in some way.  The characters who impact most on Teresa Neele are running away from unspoken grief, as she is, and so they circle around each other, unsure as to whether they can unburden themselves to someone they barely know.

The narration focusses on the thoughts and emotions of Teresa and her admirer Harry; all the other characters are seen through their eyes. (Though not in a sardonic or witty way, like the sharp observations of Katherine Mansfield and Christina Stead).  Harry notices Teresa immediately: a single, attractive woman, obviously well off and au fait with the lifestyle, yet wearing the same clothes on the second day as on her first.  So he is intrigued, and the hotel’s amenities and attractions conspire with him to get to know her better.  There’s a couple there, too, who conspire to help Harry in his quest.  The Jackmans have something in common with the back story Teresa invents for herself,  they have a daughter who has just lost a child as Teresa claims to have done.  Mrs Jackman does a little low-level matchmaking for these two single people, a device which means that usually Teresa and Harry know where the other is, to be met or avoided, depending on inclination.

Although the ‘big’ secret is the question of Teresa’s identity and whether she will reveal it to Harry or he will reveal that he’s sussed her out from the newspaper reports of her disappearance, the interest of the novel is whether they will confide to each other the secrets that are the real reason for their unsettled lifestyle, and then, whether any such revelations will lead to anything more.  So while the story is bookended by the framework of the Christie disappearance, the novel is much like any other novel focussed on a woman getting away from it all (and possibly getting into extra-marital mischief).  Both characters are haunted by old loves and the anguish of missed opportunities, and it is up to the reader to deduce whether either or both are ready for anything new.

The writing style is curious.  At times it deliberately draws attention to itself, with unusual constructions like she had stridden.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the past tense of the verb to stride used in this way.  There are also word choices which seem anachronistic, such as she couldn’t quite place this homey scene, instead of homely.  There is attention to the Australian accent which I found odd because it seemed to imply that wealthy Australians in 1926 had an instantly recognisable broad accent, when (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!) Australians of Harry’s class spoke with what is now called a ‘cultivated Australian’ accent i.e. indistinguishable from the BBC accent of the 1950s, and best exemplified by Tamie Fraser and others of her ilk.  When Teresa muses on her life with ‘Mummy’ and ‘Nursie’, the text sometimes verges on parody.  Yet there are snippets which reminded me of Patrick White’s modernism, as in He … dressed hectically, not troubling with a shave.  I am undecided about whether I admire this writing style, or not.  Here’s a larger sample, chosen at random:

In came the chambermaid with tea and newspaper.  A wedge between Teresa and the warmth she’d been forced from.  She said she’d take breakfast in bed, resentful of the young woman’s efficient movements and elastic spine.  Yet there were dark dips under her too-penetrating eyes.  She might know what it was to be betrayed by sleep.  She probably had a child, several, and must be an old intimate of fatigue.  How had she kept her pleasing waist? Her days would involve a great deal of hard work, of course, and possibly letdowns that may or many not be blunter than suffering.  The beauty not quite managed was receding, a treasured friend waving on the quay, a shimmer in the distance.  Light hair discolouring, silver strands creeping in like minor but disruptive misunderstandings. When the husband’s eye roamed, she’d know it.  Teresa continued to take exception to her energetic gaze.  (p. 104)

Peter Pierce in The Australian was very impressed.  (Sorry if it’s paywalled). He suggests that Thornell’s literary ancestor is the once lauded, now almost forgotten Martin Boyd. 

The cover design?  Hmm.  The text font is nice, but as so often, the image is just one of those generic images.

Author: Kristel Thornell
Title: On the Blue Train
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760293109
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Available from Fishpond: On the Blue Train

 


Responses

  1. The cover says ‘Agatha Christie disappeared. This is her story.’ Do you think it is fair of the publishers to say that? Is there any connection with Christie other than that she ‘disappeared’ for 11 days, or with her novel ‘Mystery of the Blue Train?’

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    • I did notice that absurd and misleading claim, but *chuckle* I thought I’d rather not be unrelentingly negative about the cover. OTOH how can a marketer link the book to Christie briefly? *chuckle* ?This is her purported story as imagined by the author? Sounds a bit naff, doesn’t it?
      #Disclaimer: I probably have read Blue Train because I think I read everything she wrote during my Blytonesque Agatha Christie period. But I don’t remember anything about it, and have no intention of reading it to find out. So – bearing that in mind – it seemed to me as I was reading it that the book could have been about any woman/everywoman, except that this was a moneyed woman and her disappearance was celebrity news (whereas if women go missing these days, they rarely merit newspaper space.) And from a plot POV once Harry works things out, knowing who she is adds a frisson to his interactions with her.
      However, I should say that from what I remember of Christie’s style, I suspect that people whose reading fare is her books and others like them, are unlikely to enjoy this.

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    • All’s fair in fiction I say Bill! Well, perhaps not ALL but I don’t get my knickers in a knot about marketing claims on the cover of fiction. I expect readers to understand that the rest of that message is (as imagined by the author!).

      BTW I have never read an Agatha Christie novel – and I suspect I never will now! I’ve seen tv shows about this time in her life. I think I’ll just remember that rather than read this book given my overall lack of knowledge about her.

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      • Never read an Agatha Christie, wow, that’s as strong-minded as me never having eaten in McDonalds!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Just never interested Lisa, even though my Mum had some as I recollect. I was never interested in crime, and didn’t read my first crime novel until my 40s I think. Since then I’ve read a few but I don’t seek them out. As for McDonalds I have eaten there a few times but only because I was told I was being way too mean to the kids to refuse entirely! (Otherwise I would have been strong-minded like you!) Since they’ve grown up – never.

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          • I was lucky, The Offspring didn’t like McDs so I was off the hook!

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            • You were … we were living in the US at just the right age (early to late primary school) for them to like it, so their interest wasn’t surprising.

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  2. When I start noticing particular words and the way they’re used in a book, alarm bells start ringing – I start reading differently. I probably wouldn’t read this book (because the subject doesn’t grab me) but was confirmed by the quotes you selected (especially the ‘stride’ bit).

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    • There was another choice that interested me. Somebody in the story tucks into some pumpkin soup, and it was always my understanding from family folk lore about my father’s first encounter with pumpkin in Africa, that the English of that era regarded pumpkins as pig food.

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      • Yes, I had an old English friend who worked as a cook in England (in Australia she cooked for the masters at an elite boys school) and she once told me the same thing.

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        • Well, well, well…. It’s not just a family story, it’s actually true. Thank you Elise!

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    • That’s where I had real problems. Half way through just kept stumbling over words and awkward phrases. (I list some in my review) and I was lost after that. I have just recently read the Blue Train and enjoyed it. I’m now dipping into the early Christies.

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  3. Clever linking to original novel title of Christie book . I remember they said her works changed slightly after the disappearance on a programme over here about her life

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    • Did they? That’s interesting… I wonder in what way…

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      • Just want to mention that only a year after her disappearance who should appear in print (in a short story) for the first time – Marple of course. I think that is telling and to my mind a missed opportunity. I like to imagine that her new character was a sort of comfort to her. I know some of mine are.

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        • I didn’t know that. But I do know that writing, of any kind, is usually a comfort. I can’t really imagine how people get by without doing it!

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          • Haha Lisa, that’s because we like writing. I reckon people who find, say, running good for the spirit, wonder how we manage without doing that!

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          • Neither can I. I go crazy if I don’t write!

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  4. Hi Lisa, I picked up On The Blue Train from the library last week. It was one I had reserved, but I couldn’t remember why. I checked your blog and found out why. I am glad I did. The writing style was different. At times I was impressed with it, and yet other times I thought Thornell overdid the words. I agree it wasn’t a mystery. To me it was a character study of disconnected people.

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    • Yes, sometimes the blurb can be very misleading. But, interesting because this doesn’t always happen for me, I still have a vivid memory of the couple in this story – so the characterisation was definitely a success.

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