The short answer to the question posed in my post title is:
Next to impossible, so take a boat instead.
If you want a longer answer keep reading the rest of this review…
I thought I would return to the work of Ethel Lina White, hoping to read my first knock-your-socks-off good book of the year. In this matter, my dear reader, I was sadly mistaken. Whilst this book has been categorised as an espionage tale, I would say that was pushing it, as in this 300-page novel, the main dilemma is simply one of getting on a train. But I am getting ahead of myself a little…
The book’s protagonist is Anna Stephanovitch/Brown and she has become disillusioned by the man she thought she loved. She followed him from London, desperate for a fresh experience and to get away from the bourgeois capitalist lifestyle. In reality she ended up in a grim northern town in Russia, acting as an intellectual muse and banker for Otto and the paper he runs. As well as financing his paper, her money has also gone on financing Otto’s extensive love life. At last Anna decides to move on and return to London. All she has to do is buy a ticket. A question for the reader: Which of these events are not a reason for why Anna doesn’t get on a train:
- She loses the majority of her money due to Otto’s offices being raided by the State. The money is deemed to be of fascist origin and being used to forward fascist propaganda aims. To claim the money as her own would put her on the fast lane to imprisonment.
- She writes to her relatives in England who send her money, but the money is sent to her Brown surname, (belonging to her step father). The locals only know her under her father’s surname and refuse to give it to her.
- Locals on the make muddy her name with those who could help her finance her ticket.
- Money secured, (100 pages in), Anna is prevented from getting the train as two of her friends arrive and are keen for her to travel with them and double up as nursery maid.
- Her friends’ baby has a sore throat and her parents refuse to leave until a doctor has done extensive tests, (which take up to a week), despite the political climate getting very ugly indeed.
- They buy the tickets, they get to the platform and the train even arrives in the station, but the local police take Anna’s friends away on serious charges.
The answer to this question is none, as all of these are reasons why Anna does not get on a train. Given how much of the book is taken up with postponements I got to the point of wanting to frog march Anna personally to the train station and bungee cord her to a seat!
The suspense element of the book, which takes a very long time to arrive is the ever-increasing threat of the powers that be, that arrest individuals for little or no reason, and frequently even execute them. Otto and his lover have already been arrested and Anna also feels herself close to a similar fate. Her lack of finances initially traps her within this dangerous setup and seeing how others fare at the hands of the State ensures her anxiety reaches exploding point when her friends are detained. There is no queue of helpful friends and allies to aid Anna. British nationals are very keen to look after their skin and locals invariably seem to be bribe focused and there is the ever-increasing fear that there is a government spy amongst them. You would not be blamed for asking whether Anna ever makes it home! Whether you end up caring or not, is another matter…
The suspense and the role of fate in this book operates on the ‘if only if I had…’ system and anything from bad timing, a misunderstood phrase to a bureaucratic technicality pushes home and safety out of Anna’s reach. White voices this best when she writes at the start of the book that:
‘Anna often had the impression of being imprisoned within a maze, five minutes before closing-time. Its windings were neither numerous nor complicated; but, if she lost her head and took a wrong turning in her haste, she might reach the outlet – only find the door locked.’
However, as I mentioned earlier this is not a great read. The problem with the lengthy series of near calamities that never materialise, is that you are sufficiently wearied when the real one comes along. Personally, I just couldn’t buy into their peril and I found the big “crisis” had little to no impact. Anna’s earlier active nature has also gone walkabouts at this point, (probably caught the train home). I also noticed with this series of postponements that the plot lacked a driving force. Despite Anna’s need to go home, there is a negation of energy and activity. There is no sense of what might be coming next. At one point I even wondered whether White was mirroring a modernist novel, (they too not being big on action and plot, if my university degree memories serve me correctly). For such a long book there is not enough plot to fill the pages and the end was somewhat of a disappointment, despite its cute flourish of dialogue at the end, (which I had seen coming a mile away). Those who dislike unanswered questions, will also feel somewhat peeved.
All of this is somewhat of a shame, as White seemed to be branching out in terms of social norms and romance tropes. Firstly, there is the unfaithful Otto. Although, interestingly, perhaps because Anna and he were not bedfellows, the narrative is not fully condemning of his behaviour, (which he likes to defend with the collectivist principles he espouses). There is also a sense of him simply being himself, in the way a cat kills a mouse, and with Anna feeling herself at fault for wanting something different. The financial aspect of his duplicity is probably where the narrative is more disapproving and the issue which irks Anna the most – after all why should her money be used to pay for fur coats, she wasn’t getting to wear? In contrast to the protagonist in The Wheel Spins, Iris, Anna seems a bit more worldly, maybe a bit less innocent – though layers of naivety do emerge as the book progresses. Whilst Iris seems to find her inner grit the more she undergoes, Anna comparatively does the opposite, so her practical minded nature falls somewhat by the way side at the end, (when to be honest it would have been fairly helpful).
The Russian characters probably don’t get the most favourable of portrayals – alcoholism, bribery, corruption, loose living, unrestrained violence and desensitisation to the previous are fairly endemic. We also border into thriller/James Bond villain territory with the blonde mad public prosecutor who acts like ‘a machine,’ and has a hatred of the English, of married women, and of children, due to a traumatic experience in Britain. This woman occupies her time getting drunk and shooting prisoners… (as you do).
So, I wouldn’t recommend reading this book for its plot, nor really for its characters, as despite spending a lot of time with Anna, you can’t really warm to her and part of you does start to hope she might get run over by a train, rather than watching her endlessly miss catching one. The only value I can see is for those researching 1930s social, gender and political attitudes. You could have a field day trying to chart and analyse all of that, as White dabbles with a lot of ambiguity in those areas.
I’ve not seen much on this online, so would be interested in hearing what other people made of it.
If you are new to the work of White, DO NOT START HERE!