Train Man by Andrew Mulligan

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Train Man by Andrew Mulligan

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: If you think to find a kind of Mitch Albom read here, with a man finding unlikely succour amongst the train routes of England, think again.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: July 2019
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781784742713

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I came to this book thinking I knew just what to expect, even though it is the author's debut in the adult novel market (hence the more mature name – he used to be an Andy). I thought it simple to sum up, the tale of a middle-aged man who knows too much about train travel having his life turned around in the most pleasant way. I hadn't opened it when I'd shelved it alongside Chris Cleave, and David Nicholls. I expected some whimsy, some warmth and some affirmative loveliness.

More fool me.

Michael is on his way to kill himself. He's got his tangerines, a juice carton he's swapped out for neat whisky, and a date with a fast train just outside Crewe, where he plans to walk off the end of the platforms and along the tracks to his handily timetabled death. Obviously, however, he is going to have some other story to coincide with, and that might be someone we quickly find in her own story, but she regales a vicar opposite her on her train that they're all grieving and denying god because her teenaged brother on his pushbike was collected fatally by a lorry. Without his love, there was no world, and it had slowly stopped spinning, she thinks. So where is this warmth going to come from? It won't come from Michael's story, that's for sure – here he is imagining gang rape for his barista, death, and thinking back to when he was abused by a teacher. He lost his last job because he was a twit and didn't do it – oh, and he's also dumped a fiancee by letter. And one of his finest holiday memories is of a museum of torture.

This, then, is not a book to light-heartedly chortle away a few hours, whether on a train ride or not. For another thing, the bulk of it, Michael's story, is so fractured, weaving in flashbacks to past relationships and holidays, and scenes of him losing his job performed by the people in the carriage with him as he travels to his demise. Quite often you're juggling three threads as his mental processes take us and him pell mell around his lot, and we're forever on our toes – as well as repulsed by quite a lot of things he fantasises about.

Ultimately, the question must be did I get the book I sought, or if not, one I would recommend? I think neither was the case. I can see that my preconceptions were wrong and that that's my fault, but I did hope for something a little better attuned to my tastes. I still find it odd that some book reviews mention 'trigger points', ie things and themes that might inspire negative feelings or dislikes in the reader, but I would still be listing them if I were one of those writers. (And can I mention one particularly odd trigger point – the fact the man starts his adventure with three £20 notes, and by the end has spent four?)

What I have to admit is that this is readable – for all the bits I felt the urge to skip for their gloom, and their seeming irrelevance, I knew there was an unfathomable arc to the man and his book I did want to stick with. But as for suicidal people finding redemption, well – as good as the plot gets I know of nothing like this for sending the reader down the same dark alley. This, as you can guess, has a light at the end of the train tunnel, but I really can't say I found favour with all that darkness preceding it.

I must still thank the publishers for sending me a review copy.

I have to admit to finding the Mitch Albom positivity more to my taste.

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