Genre: Historical / Literary Fiction
On a chilly evening in December 1926, crime writer Agatha Christie vanished. Her car was found abandoned near Guildford’s ominous-sounding The Silent Pool, the site of several rumoured deaths. A nationwide search was launched. According to Matthew Thompson, in his article ‘Lady Vanishes: The Mysterious Agatha Christie Disappearance’, ‘Over a thousand officers and 15,000 volunteers combed the countryside while dredge teams scoured the surrounding lakes and streams. A fleet of biplanes searched from the skies—the first in England’s history for a missing person case.’ Most feared her dead, either by suicide or more sinister means.
Eleven days later, Christie was found at a spa hotel in Harrogate, where she had registered under the name of her husband’s lover, Teresa Neele.
What prompted her disappearance and what occurred during those lost days has been a source of much speculation: a mystery akin to those Christie plotted in her books.
Blending fact and fiction, Kristel Thornell’s On the Blue Train (Allen & Unwin, Oct. 2016) seeks to account for Christie’s movements during her disappearance, and in doing so weaves a moving story of grief, love, healing and creative life.
I was intrigued by Thornell’s premise. I love novels, such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Therese Anne Fowler’s Z, that explore the lives of notable women who were unable to share their stories during their lifetime. I’ve always been interested in learning what happened to Christie during her eleven-day disappearance and what she was thinking during that time (the most popular theory is that she was in a fugue state). However (and I’m ashamed to admit this), I’ve read very little of Christie’s work. Just one or two books, and not recently. Consequently, I worried that On the Blue Train would be one for the fans and riddled with references to Christie’s novels that I wouldn’t understand.
Not so. Or, a least, any references were so subtly alluded to that they slid beneath my notice. The exception being the title, which takes its cue from one of Christie’s titles, The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928). In Thornell’s novel, Christie has become stuck while trying to formulate the plot for her Blue Train. Namely, she isn’t sure what to do with her female lead. Her first instinct is to kill her off, but she can’t seem to make that plot work.
…She herself was writing a book about a train, le train bleu. A wretched train wreck of a book. Even remoter than a phantom to her it was, for she was receiving no visitations from it whatsoever. Rather like a woman scheduled to soon give birth who has ceased to feel her baby moving. A wave of something not unlike nausea ran through her.
However (and I hope this isn’t just me reading into the text), Thornell’s use of Blue Train also refers to Christie’s ‘blue’ mental state at the time of her disappearance. Christie’s marriage is falling apart, she’s grieving for her dead mother while struggling to negotiate her own role as a mother, she feels middle-age is beginning to wilt the bloom of her youth and she can’t write.
Is love where we go wrong? Where the grief comes from? I’ve been thinking that it might be too much of a burden to impose on someone—loving them, I mean, and expecting anything at all in return. I’ve always thought of my childhood as blissful, but I wonder now if Mummy didn’t love me too much. If, in such love, there wasn’t a demand too large for a child to fulfil. And she had to know I’d desire such love from others, also, and lose her eventually.
Christie, or Teresa as she calls herself throughout the story, shares the narrative with Harry, a middle-aged Australian widower who’s also taken up residence at the Harrogate Hydro. At first, I wasn’t sure about Harry. I imagined some cheesy romance unfolding and crossed my fingers that wouldn’t be the case. Harry reminds Teresa of a man known only as Shy Thing whom she met on a visit to Queensland, Australia, in the early years of her marriage. They do form a relationship of sorts—Harry falls hard and fast for Teresa, but while she enjoys his company and comes to care for him deeply, she understands that he’s not the solution she’s looking for. I ended up enjoying their relationship. It’s vulnerable, fragile and held together with their shared yearning for chances not taken, ‘Two exhausted people occupying the same corner of space.’
However, the story fundamentally belongs to Teresa and her relationship with Harry comprises one aspect in a complex portrait of a woman in crisis. Thornell takes a sensitive and nuanced approach to exploring what it meant to juggle the domestic roles of wife, daughter and mother with the professional role of crime writer in 1926, which was both the golden age of crime fiction and a time when most believed that a woman’s chief obligation was to her family and the running of her household.
If I have one criticism of On the Blue Train, it’s the that the pace is a little slow, particularly in the early chapters. The story frequently drifts into reverie and reminiscence, and while this supports the story’s melancholy mood and premise of a woman stalled, it may feel a tad sluggish to Christie fans who delight in a twisting plot. Although, maybe this is unfair. With Christie as the subject, I went into On the Blue Train expecting a nod towards the mystery and suspense of her novels. Consequently, it took me awhile to reconcile that I was, in fact, reading a very different kind of book.
I also have to admit to entertaining uncharitable thoughts about the cover. To me, it screams what publishers term ‘women’s fiction’: light, whimsical and with just enough mystery and romance to get your pulse up without upsetting your delicate sensibilities or making you think too hard. Call me a literary snob, but if Thornell hadn’t won the Vogel, I probably would have given this one a miss. And that would have been a great shame because On the Blue Train is a poignant and thoughtful story that’s lingered with me in the days since I finished reading. It’s also beautifully written. Thornell has a talent for conveying complex emotions and situations through strikingly simple images. And, while it’s cliche to say it, I found myself lingering over her sentences, reluctant to let them go.
Going in, I expected a light, intriguing read and was pleasantly surprised to find On the Blue Train to be deep and quietly devastating. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy (and honestly, I have no interest in picking over what’s fact and what’s fiction), but as a novel On the Blue Train is both haunting and compelling and I’d recommend it to Christie devotees, but also to anyone who’s struggled with grief and loss, suffered a personal or artistic crisis, or merely found themselves overwhelmed and unsure about how to proceed.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of On the Blue Train in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up three critical issues and fifteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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