Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2022

The Signal Line, by Brendan Colley

Imagine, if you will, a vintage steam train barrelling down the disused railway lines of modern day cities, occasionally collecting confused passengers and depositing them at some bizarre destination, not necessarily on the same continent.  And imagine too, that all the observers of this phenomenon suspend all scepticism, when you’d otherwise expect them to snort in disbelief or rationalise reports of the event as drugs, drunkenness or mental disturbance.  A ghost train at large in Tasmania is the premise of debut author Brendan Colley’s The Signal Line,  which won the Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the 2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards.  It’s a book that requires the reader to suspend all disbelief too, and to enter into the weirdness…

It works because everything else is so real.  Brothers Geo and Wes are locked in a dispute about whether to sell the house they’ve inherited. Geo needs the money to finance his emerging career as a violist.  Wes, a detective, wants to wallow in the squalor of the house where his father died but grief also claims him because his marriage is over, and he’s not willing to let go of either the house or his wife and child.

The novel begins with Geo’s arrival in Tasmania, where he gets roped in to translate for a bunch of Italians who got on a train in Orvieto and arrived in Hobart. Hobart hasn’t had passenger trains since the 1970s,  so the officials who have to deal with them naturally think that they are deluded and they are taken not to immigration detention but to a hospital. But these Italians seem perfectly sane, and their story makes sense, except that none of it is possible.

Much like his toxic relationship with his father, Geo’s relationship with his brother has always been hostile. Much of the resentment comes from sibling rivalry about talent and hard work.  Geo, with the love and encouragement of his mother, is following his dream to play in an orchestra, an ambition which may perhaps be beyond his talent.  Wes works hard at his job, which involves family-unfriendly long hours and a negative view of the world.

The hostility arcs up the minute these two meet at the airport, and things only get worse from then on.  But Geo is an otherwise easy-going fellow and easily strikes up relationships with four people that cross his path.  Sten is a Swedish man who, for personal reasons revealed at the end of the book, has been pursuing this ghost train for 40 years, and Labuschagne is an expert in the paranormal and being able to predict the train’s next arrival time and site.  Camille and Paco are a couple of backpackers who are fascinated by the entire situation and offer to help to paint the house ready for sale in exchange for free accommodation.  Geo also has two women in his life, Alessia who’s another musician in Italy, and Audrey whose heart he broke when he fled Tasmania with no explanation.

The train, BTW, is not a benign presence.  It kills when someone gets in its way, and the police have to find a way of explaining a death that looks like a hit-and-run.  But what makes this book unsettling is not the ghost train, it’s the characterisation of Wes. The man is a bully, he likes to play power games such as withholding the keys to his father’s liquor cabinet, and he knows exactly what to do to hurt someone without risking arrest.  His wife wants to end the marriage, but she is afraid to, and is waiting for ‘the right moment’. Of course he has his own issues, they always do, but he’s still a malevolent character.

Wes’s voice rose in the kitchen.  We all turned to look.  Even Sten, who subsisted on a diet of power naps, opened his eyes.

‘I’ll bring it over —’ Wes pressed.  ‘No, I can come now.  It’s not —’.  He slammed his fist against the wall.  ‘It’s not … fine, okay, tomorrow night. I can have dinner with you and Hayden.  Why not …? Whatever.  I’m going to Sheffield.  I’ll drop it off on the way out.’ He screwed up his face.  ‘With Geo and Sten.  Fine … okay.  Goodbye.’

He replaced the receiver, and we glanced away.  He came into the sitting room and dropped into the recliner. (p.159)

That’s an economical way of depicting a very troubling character, and the way the listeners all look away.

Music is a strong motif throughout the novel.  It becomes a demanding taskmaster, a solace and a peacemaker.  A tattoo artist even uses it to mitigate pain…

You can read an excerpt from earlier an draft of this novel in the Griffith Review.  It’s written in the third person, whereas the novel is a first person narrative, which gives it greater immediacy.

The Signal Line is published by Transit Lounge and is due for release on May 1st.

Author: Brendan Colley
Title: The Signal Line
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
Cover design by Josh Durham/Design by Committee
ISBN: 9781925760941, pbk., 304 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


Responses

  1. Ow! The cover hurt my eyes! Great review, however!

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    • Thank you!
      Thanks for the reminder that I hadn’t acknowledged the designer, I’ve fixed it now.)

      Like

  2. This sounds like fun. I enjoy an impossible or absurd premise. I mostly keep in touch – or not entirely out of touch – with new books by reading reviews and it doesn’t seem we get a ‘special’ one/an innovative one even once a year. I hope this one.
    And I’m with Wes, I struggle to let go of anything.

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    • LOL Bill, this guy won’t let go of his father’s grotty ashtrays full of cigarette butts!

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  3. Oh, this sounds very appealing Lisa – whacky and dark and interesting! I may have to investigate!

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    • I shall certainly think about it next time I’m wandering near some of our disused train tracks…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds seriously weird, but in a good way. The set up is a good and believable one… One wanting to sell and the other not. Love the cover too.

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    • Plus, I had no idea that there were no passenger trains in Hobart. I have been there so many times, but I’ve always stayed in the city centre and walked everywhere I wanted to go. And now I realise there are no trains! I can’t think of any other cities I’ve been to, that don’t have trains…

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      • Canberra only got light rail a couple of years ago! Nor does Darwin! I know, we a small bickies as cities go and so, I suppose, is Hobart. It’s also quite hilly making trains difficult?

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        • Oops! *chuckle* I forgot Canberra, and I should have remembered because I would so love to be able to take a train to see various exhibitions that interest me. I did it once, but the train fizzles out at the border and the bus was awful.

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          • We can train to Sydney … actually! I’d forgotten that but it is so slow the coaches are better. It’s very irritating that we can’t train directly to Melbourne. My brother and some friends don’t mind the bus-train combo but it doesn’t appeal a lot to me.

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            • It’s absurd. We should have high speed electric intercity trains to all the capitals, like they do in Europe. They should start with the east coast which would show the naysayers that heaps of us would use it in preference to planes, and then extend it to WA and SA.

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              • I know … I guess our size and population make it difficult. It comes up all the time for Sydney-Canberra which would be the obvious place to start given our proximity and the amount of travel between the two that happens. We’d use it in a flash. And would love one to Melbourne of course.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. I think I need to read this ….

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    • You’ll love the Tassie setting!

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  6. Golly this sounds weird. I’m curious whether the paranormal and the “normal” elements of the story mesh well together?

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    • Yes, they do, like the best of SF novels that create a world where things simply are as they are and you, the reader, just accept them and get on with the story.

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