Innocence, experience and comedy in Cumbria
He’s a bit of a handyman. Or, at least, so Mr Parker seems to think. No matter, he’ll soon be on that train east to India from these wet lakeland fells. Just as soon as he’s finished that little job Mr Parker asked him to do.
It wasn’t much of a holiday anyway. As the tourists trickled away from the campsite, so did the sunshine, and the hot water, and the provisions at the local shop, and even the good beer. Still, there seemed to be plenty of work to take his mind off these minor disappintments – as much as he cared to do, in fact, even homework. And payment could be discussed later. Meanwhile, he was really beginning to fit in, to become one of the local fixtures, down the pub, on the farm, on the lake. Maybe that trip east could wait?
In this cautionary tale of labour and capital, of innocence and experience, Magnus Mills takes us back to the kind of terrain he patrolled so notably in The Restraint of Beasts – rural circuits where neither cash nor unemployment are much prized – and makes it conclusively his own turf.
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Magnus Mills may have single-handedly invented a new fictional genre: the Kafkaesque novel of work. First, his Booker-shortlisted The Restraint of Beasts brought to fence building the kind of black humour found in a Coen brothers movie. Now, in All Quiet on the Orient Express, Mills turns his deadpan prose on some very odd jobs indeed. The unnamed narrator is on holiday for a few weeks, camping in the Lake District before beginning an extended journey to India. He sees no reason not to agree when the campground owner--the sinister Tommy Parker, who seems mainly to engage in "buying and selling"--asks him to help out with a simple chore. As this is a Magnus Mills novel, however, no chore can possibly be simple. Through error or bad luck, one task leads to another and the narrator quickly finds himself trapped by his own passivity and a very English reluctance to cause a fuss. Soon he's doing homework for Parker's daughter, being kicked on and off the darts team at the local pub and learning how to perform a series of menial jobs. ("Have you ever operated a circular saw?" "Driven a tractor before?" "What are you like with a hammer and nails?")
There's a lot that's strange about this little town. Where have all the females gone? Why does everyone seem to think he should take over the town milk route? Why won't the shops stock his beloved baked beans? Both the grocer and the pub are oddly eager to let him run up tabs and there's no sign of payment from Tommy Parker. It seems, in fact, that the narrator's early suspicions have been fulfilled: "I'd inadvertently become his servant." Like the Hall brothers from The Restraint of Beasts, Parker is volatile, irrational and all-powerful--a primitive god ruling over his own creation. As the narrator falls further and further under his sway, All Quiet on the Orient Express becomes a striking allegory of labour and capital, purgatory and judgement, and the uncanniness of manual work. --Mary ParkReview:
‘Absorbing, darkly worrying and very, very funny’
‘Mills is a master of the cliffhanger and can make even the most deadpan behaviour compelling and funny… A deliciously sly comic fable.’
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Book Description Flamingo, 2000. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0006551858