Book review: A sinister splash in the waters of oblivion

All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills Flamingo, pounds 9.99, 211pp

THERE'S ALWAYS something watchful and strange about out-of-season tourist resorts, whether it be the flapping awnings of shuttered pier arcades by a grey sea or - in the case of Magnus Mills's second novel - a campsite up in the Lake District just as autumn comes in. And it says something about Mills's prowess as a writer that he can turn such an unpromising subject as a young man lingering in such a place after a holiday, doing a few odd jobs and playing in the darts team in the pub, into something matt-black and utterly creepy.

We don't know much about the first-person narrator, other than that he's an unmonied drifter with a much-prized "pre-unit" motorcycle, who worked for a few months in a factory down south that re-conditioned oil drums. Not fussy about his comforts, he's an ideal candidate for the "businessmen" who live locally with a finger in every pie, who want chores done, and scams seen to, without too much nosing around and with as little money as possible changing hands.

Yet all the time we're only getting half the picture. There seems to be a mysterious process - almost occult -going on beyond the narrator's ken. Everything is slightly out of kilter. Everyone he talks to behaves inconsistently. People, in short, act like they're from another planet. We readers meekly acquiesce to this skewed place called the countryside because we have no other choice. We assume there is a reason for everything, even though it may not be immeditely apparent (and may, indeed, never be apparent). Is this the twisted faith of a sociopath - the narrator - or is this really what things are like in those empty spaces beyond the boundaries of the city?

The narrator finds himself painting first gates, then a flotilla of pleasure boats by the lakeside, then sawing logs, then taking on an early-morning milk round after the milkman sinks to the bottom of the lake when assisting in the placement of a concrete mooring anchor. (No further action is taken about his death; there are no policemen, doctors or vicars in this pre- societal world.)

He does find himself being "accepted" in a limited, paralysing way by the locals - though the more he knows about individuals and how all their lives fit together, the more peculiar everything really seems. This Lake District idyll seems like one of the circles of hell where lost souls are doomed to repeat themselves in the thrall of ineffable and malignant forces.

I was not wholly convinced by the success of his much-praised debut The Restraint of Beasts, but there is now no doubt in my mind that Magnus Mills is here to stay, and is a very good writer indeed. All Quiet on the Orient Express is minimalist, spare and full of suggestion. The novel's tone is still bouncing round my head days after first experiencing its world: a demonic dystopia in the heart of Bragg country.

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