Off the Rails

This is my review of The People’s Train by Thomas Keneally.

Years ago I gave up reading Schindler's Ark since the dry detail and plodding plot made it too tedious – it took Spielberg's vision to make it into the poignant and dramatic film which did justice to the true story.

A few chapters into "The People's Train", which I had to read for a book group, my old reservations about Keneally's writing began to surface. This book reads like an exercise into how not to write a novel. It is not that the plot lacks inherent interest: a charismatic working class political activist in the dying days of the tsarist regime takes refuge in Brisbane where he tries to galvanise the tramworkers and sheep shearers into strike action and discovers that democracies can be as oppressive as dictatorships. Then he returns to Russia to take part in the 1917 Revolution. The book appears to be based on thorough research, and it contains a few striking dramatic situations (which I cannot spoil by revealing). It raises some interesting moral issues about direct action, such as why people may be more shocked about a communist revolutionary marrying a rich woman to use her money for the cause than by an idealistic young woman blowing up an aristocrat with a bomb.

No, what troubled me was the "tin ear" quality of much of the writing and the rambling structure. The book was like a first draft which needs to be reshaped and honed. The style is firmly placed at the "telling not showing" end of the spectrum. Thus, dialogues are often unnatural, used to give the reader information rather than reveal the personalities and interrelationships of the characters. The latter are two-dimensional and underdeveloped. The two different voices used for the first person narration, initially the Russian Artem and then the Aussie Paddy Dykes in the second part, sound too much the same. Paddy's record in particular suffers from the problem of covering events at which he was not present and could not have understood much of anyway because conducted in Russian!

The small number of dramatic scenes tend to be handled so clumsily that most of the potential tension, suspense and emotional power is stripped from them. The reader is subjected to a myriad of unimportant details. I suppose that the tedium of political activism – endless meetings and reports – could be realistic but does not make for a gripping read. Yet I would save my greatest criticism for the lamentable sex scenes, for which strong men lapse into cringe-making bathos. To quote:

XX " and I took to the single bed the place offered and partly sated and partly enlarged our hunger for each other. The bed was enlarged too, so that it seemed a valid arena for us. She proved all that could be imagined: a superb, white, richly curved creation, generous enough to let me see that much. Still, there was a discretion and modesty in the way she went about it – is it crass to say that in large part her outer garments remained undisturbed?"

Not surprisingly, this relationship does not last!

The conclusion of the book, I think meant to be a moment of climax with hints of future disappointments, is in fact too weak.

With editing, I could respect this approach to writing as biography or popular history, but as fiction it fails.

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

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