Historical approach with a large cast

Mike Crowl reviews The People's Train.

Tom Keneally
Vintage, $39.99, pbk

Over the years, Tom Keneally has not only written straight fiction but also novels with historical realities underpinning them.

The People's Train is one of the latter.

The book is full of detail and thoroughly researched (or at least Keneally convinces us that it is), is divided into two not quite equal sections, each with a distinct narrator, and sets its characters amid tumultuous times from 1911 up to the famous "Ten Days that Shook the World".

The problem is that the first narrator, Tom (also known by his Russian name, Artem), makes a dull companion.

This may be intentional, as Tom's focus in life is on the coming revolution in Russia, as well as the possibilities of a mini-revolution in the heat and humidity of Brisbane where we find him at the beginning of the book. Everything else is subsidiary.

Unfortunately, it means we never get emotionally involved with him. Furthermore, the endless talk of various socialist factions are thrown at us without much explanation, and this only gets worse in the second half of the book.

The second and more lively narrator, Paddy Dykes, a journalist in his mid-30s, has been a fairly frequent participant within the first narrative.

In 1917 he goes along with Artem (the name Tom is now left behind) when the latter returns to Russia in the beginnings of the time leading up to the Ten Days.

The rather naive Dykes hero-worships Artem; Artem sees him as his voice to the outside world, and Paddy is happy to oblige.

Though Paddy's narration has more energy, Artem becomes an even more remote figure within it.

He and Paddy are involved in events large and small without any of these turning into a dramatic form we can get inside.

Everything is at a remove from the reader.

The historical sequence approach of the novel means there's little real interplay between the characters; those who get involved with each other often slide out of view without a sense of loss to other people.

And the large cast becomes a welter of names for the reader to contend with, even though a few are recognisable for their later part in history.

In the Brisbane scenes, things are often grim but at least there's mostly a sense of British behaviour behind the brutality.

By the time we reach Russia, anarchy has taken over and brutal and sudden killings are the order of the day - although Artem himself remains dispassionate in the midst of it all.

Other critics have said this book is a tremendous and exciting read.

I found myself skimming at times just in order to keep moving.

And The People's Train? A monorail dream of one of the characters; perhaps a symbol for the revolution itself.

- Mike Crowl is a Dunedin writer.


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