All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills

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All Quiet on the Orient Express: reissued

Five words from the blurb: Lake District, quiet, camper, stays, amusement

I used to live in the Lake District and so am drawn towards books set there. I had no idea that All Quiet on the Orient Express was based in the region until Annabel included it in her choice of books to represent the UK. I immediately bought a copy, keen to be transported back to the Lake District. Unfortunately that failed to happen, but it was a light, entertaining read.

All Quiet on the Orient Express focuses on a man who finds that he is the only person left on a campsite at the end of the tourist season. He agrees to do a few jobs for the owner and ends up staying, forming relationships with the locals. There was very little plot, with most of the book being a satire that revolved around an eclectic mix of characters.

Unfortunately I didn’t recognise the Lake District in any part of the book. It described a lake, but it failed to conjure up the majesty of the surrounding fells and much of the text made me feel that he wasn’t familiar with the area at all. Take this passage, for example:

He placed a perfect pint of Topham’s Excelsior Bitter on the counter, and I paid him.
‘Won’t you be getting any more after that?’ I asked.
‘We’d never sell enough to make it worth while,’ he replied.
‘What about the locals though? Don’t they drink it?’
‘Course not,’ he said with a grin. ‘They’re not interested in real ale.’
‘Aren’t they?’
‘No, they much prefer keg beers. Lager and such-like. You know, from a factory.’

Nonsense! Cumbrian locals are passionate real ale drinkers. It is probably one of the strongest Bitter supporting regions in the country. There were many other details that didn’t ring true and that, coupled with the lack of the regional dialect, made me feel this book was set in another part of the country. In fact, if I’d read this blind I’d have placed it in Berkshire or Buckinghamshire.

If I ignore the disappointing setting of this book it was a reasonable read. It was an accurate reflection a small community reacting to an outsider and there were many amusing little scenes. It was bit too charming for me, but I can see why so many people love Mills’ writing.

Recommended for those who love light character driven satire.

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13 Comments

  1. kimbofo says:

    Interesting to see your thoughts on this one, Jackie. I don’t think it’s supposed to be a travel guide to the Lake District. I read it years ago and it remains fresh in my memory. I thought it was more an expose of the unspoken rules of English society — if you don’t understand those rules you end up flailing about and thinking everyone’s acting very strangely, whereas they all think you’re the mad one.

    Not sure if you have read other books by Mills (I’ve read them all), but this is a common theme in his work: he looks at the over-complication of our lives (by which I mean English life) and strips it down to show how preposterous it all is with its stupid rules for rules sake, the ridiculous powerplays of the jobsworth, the emphasis on red tape and bureaucracy for no good reason etc etc.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kim, I never expected it to be a travel guide, but I found it distracting when basic facts about the region were incorrect. If authors get it right (eg Sarah Hall) they instantly become favourites.

      I haven’t read any of his other books, but would be interested to see if I enjoy them more once they move away from areas I’m familiar with. I’ll let you know one day!

  2. John Self says:

    I agree with Kim. Mills is a unique writer doing very interesting things, part Kafka, part Ishiguro, part Alan Bennett, but with his own voice and vision. All Quiet on the Orient Express was the first Mills I read and I loved it immediately. It’s funny and sinister and, as Kim says, tells us all about the way certain people behave – whether they’re from the Lake District or anywhere else. He’s also very interested in work and labour, which isn’t often addressed in fiction in such pure terms.

    If the setting of this book distracted you in a quest for verisimilitude, then I recommend some of Mills’s later books, particularly Three to See the King, Explorers of the New Century and A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In. These have similar qualities – each with an angle of its own – but are set in a consciously unidentifiable place, all the better to bring out the essence of the ideas.

    1. Jackie says:

      John, Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll try some of his later books and see if have more luck with them.

  3. Annabel says:

    OK – I was limited in my choice of books to represent the NW of England, and the location is not the real star. Sorry if I misled you.

    It’s the men and their work and related attitudes that are the focus and it was simultaneously a bit macabre and hilarious for me. All his books are about this – each with a slightly different angle as John says.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, Don’t worry – you didn’t mislead me! I’m really pleased that I read this book as it helped me to understand my taste in books a bit more and has lead to some interesting debates.

  4. Neil Ansell says:

    I’ve read quite a few of his books, though not this one, and really like the distinctiveness of his voice, and his slightly unsettling perspective on things.
    If you are interested in books set in the Lakes, I would highly recommend The Shining Levels by John Wyatt which I had the pleasure of reviewing last year when it was re-released. It is narrative non-fiction rather than a novel though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Neil, Thank you for the recommendation! I hadn’t heard of ‘The Shining Levels’ before, but I’ve just ordered a copy as it sounds wonderful. I’ll let you know how I get on :-)

  5. Charlie says:

    Hmm, getting things right is something that’s important to me so I’ll be skipping this one (even if I admit I might not have noticed all the differences). It sounds alright otherwise but yes, the details should be correct.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, Unless you’re familiar with the area you probably wouldn’t notice these things. Everyone else seems to love it so you might be worth giving it a try.

  6. Judith says:

    I love small community reads but a pity you didn’t recognise the Lake District. I wouldn’t if I were driving through it, I suspect (having only been there once), so this probably would work for me. Thanks for the review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, I think you’d love this one! I hope you enjoy it if you decide to give it a try.

  7. stujallen says:

    I agree with others iot is more about what is hidden in a lot of places in england ,he tackled it similarly in the restraint of beasts if you change the characters to Poles or Asian it would be a lot more political but it is meant to be about that such a stong story ,I love his off kilter view of the world .all the best stu

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