There are all kinds of phrases I want to use to review this book: relentless, unstoppable, outrageous. And I want to see them all under five stars on a billboard-sized movie poster because that is the kind of book this is. Incredibly enjoyable, the only caveat I can provide is that, perhaps like an action movie, while you are in the midst of it you are unable to step back and work out whether it is purely playing with your adrenaline and your heartstrings, or if it is reaching your mind too.
One of the greatest tricks the book pulls off is one of unoriginality. It takes a particularly skilful writer to take a well-trodden path and make it both enticing and mysterious. In Night Train we are placed in the familiar horror/fantasy/sci-fi setting of the Scenic McGuffin, where the physical surroundings for the protagonists are immediately recognisable as being imaginary, symbolic or hallucinatory, and to some degree allegorical or metaphorical. We could be on board the Nostromo, or looking into the cellar in The Babadook; we could be in Wonderland, or in Oz talking to the Wizard with the curtain about to drop. But the pace of the book gives you absolutely no time to worry about such niceties. We are on a train, in the night, and we share with the initially unnamed protagonist complete ignorance as to why; and then, from carriage to carriage, we are dragged forwards towards the inevitable anticlimax of the ending. And again, although that sounds like it should be a bad thing, because of the sheer quality of the writing, it is somehow not.
Our protagonist, who adopts the name Garland, which is stitched on the name badge of the uniform she is wearing, encounters travelling companions who like her have arrived on the train from mysterious origins. Each carriage brings a mixture of surrealism and horror, and each encounter brings some new clue as to the beginning of the story and its likely conclusion. Poe’s adage for the short story, that nothing which does not advance the plot should be admitted into the narrative, is here applied to a long-form piece of fiction, resulting in breathless pace and in a cohesion otherwise very hard to create in a novel in which almost everything is a trick or a mask or in some other way not as real as it might seem. For it is definitely tricksy and plays all the postmodern tricks you can imagine, but gets away with it through the combination of pace and wit.
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Quite near the end, a newly arrived character who speaks with some authority says: “I said this train was like a book. Different carriages, different chapters … I didn’t say which book though.” When he follows this up by throwing out the (unanswered) question, “ever hear of a man called Shandy?,” we get a sizable hint of where some of Quantick’s inspiration has come from. But unlike Nicole Cushing’s recent and not entirely successful attempt to channel the spirit and tone of Laurence Sterne’s classic oddity Tristram Shandy, Night Train is more specific in the lead it takes from the eighteenth-century work. Quantick takes the travelogue which appears in volume 7 of the same work as its model for Night Train’s structure and pace. In this narrative diversion, a satire of contemporary travel memoirs which Sterne later followed up in A Sentimental Journey, Tristram Shandy attempts to escape Death quite literally, by relentlessly moving from place to place. In Quantick’s version of the conceit, Garland is never clear whether she is escaping death or moving towards it, but the application of this idea to the narrative is very similar, and the feeling of momentum it provides is exhilarating, as well as the feeling of dread at what might happen should the train reach some ultimate destination.
Providing a plot synopsis is not particularly useful in a review of a novel like this – the plot is physically like a horror movie or blockbuster thriller (think Train to Busan or more accurately Runaway Train) only each encounter, whether involving mortal combat with a genetically engineered demon or a meal consisting entirely of different coloured cans of soup, is topically like a chapter of Alice in Wonderland. So a thematic synopsis is more useful.
There is an emerging awareness among the characters that the outside world is somehow dreadfully compromised. It may be hell, it may be post-apocalypse earth, but for whatever reason, the awful reality of the train may be preferable to everything else in existence. And there is a political threat emerging alongside this existential one – someone is pulling the strings (or the levers), and one of the apparent group of heroes may be involved. Alongside those narrative themes we have Poppy, an ultra-violent bionic skier with a headless and bloodstained teddy bear, Banks, a man whose face is not his own; and Garland.
Add to that the penchant for the one-liner (“you draw like a horse” was my favourite) from a writer whose credits include The Thick of It, The Day Today and Veep, and you have a recipe for – well – a week after finishing it I’m still not sure. Either a stone-cold classic that will last for decades if not centuries, or, at the very worst, the best summer read you’ll have this year. I’m just waiting to see who buys the film rights.
Photograph: Егор Журавлёв