Review: The Train

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The TrainThe Train by Georges Simenon
Published by Melville House on July 19, 2011
Genres: Historical, Mystery
Pages: 144
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley

Against all expectations Marcel Ferón has made a “normal” life in a bucolic French suburb in the Ardennes. But on May 10, 1940, as Nazi tanks approach, this timid, happy man must abandon his home and confront the “Fate” that he has secretly awaited. Separated from his pregnant wife and young daughter in the chaos of flight, he joins a freight car of refugees hurtling southward ahead of the pursuing invaders. There, he meets Anna, a sad-looking, dark- haired girl, whose accent is “neither Belgian nor German,” and who “seemed foreign to everything around her.” As the mystery of Anna’s identity is gradually revealed, Marcel leaps from the heights of an exhilarating freedom to the depths of a terrifying responsibility—one that will lead him to a blood-chilling choice.

When it first appeared in English in 1964, British novelist and critic Brigid Brophy declared The Train to be “the novel his admirers had been expecting all along from Simenon.” Until The Train, she wrote, the dazzlingly prolific novelist had been “a master without a masterpiece.”

Believe it or not, I was a History major in undergrad, not English, although, given my love of literature, that might have been the obvious choice. I do also really enjoy reading about history, although I do it less, since so many academic historians write so dryly and reading their books is like pulling teeth. My favorite historical periods to study are World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War, not the battles so much, but what life was like. I am a sucker for novels about these time periods as much as I am for ya books with corsets on the cover.

I tried, somewhat halfheartedly, to find out some historical background on The Train, but was not particularly successful. Apparently, the book was forgotten after its initial publication and is now being republished in a snazzy new cover by Melville House, which is doing the same for a number of old titles. The initial publication in English was in 1964.

The book itself was somewhat of a disappointment. It had some inherent interest, because Simenon discussed a section of wartime life I knew nothing about, which I always love. The refugees on the trains are reminiscent of Holocaust memoirs, only they had it so incredibly easy. Their trains made so many stops, so they could get out and do their business, and they were given free, pretty plentiful and delicious food at each station. They had enough space to lay down in the train cars. Still, they were pretty cramped and they had no idea where they were going or precisely what would happen to them when they got there. This was all cool.

The main problem I had with The Train was either the translation or Simenon’s writing style, although I cannot say which. The syntax was often odd and stilted, making me need to read a few sentences a couple of times to figure out what was going on. Its like the rhythm is just a little bit off somehow.

I also did not appreciate reading yet another book about an affair. Sigh. To be fair though, the affair did support the story and made perfect sense in context. The freedom that everyone felt was a part of the train journey too. It was so different from daily experience that people felt uninhibited: “I wasn’t alone in feeling outside ordinary life and its conventions” (126).

Also cool is the question of how reliable of a narrator Marcel really is. Some of his assertions definitely need to be taken with a cellar of salt. At only 153 pages, The Train is well-worth the time it takes to read for the unique reflection on WWII life.

3 responses to “Review: The Train”

  1. Nori says:

    Why were they fleeing the French? Otherwise, this sounds interesting. I love stuff that involves train rides. And I’m interested in this history too.

  2. Christina says:

    wah wah, I did not mean to type that. Sometimes I get ahead of myself and my fingers get confused and just start typing things.

    Train rides? That’s an interesting specialty. :-p Did it all start with The Murder on the Orient Express?

  3. Nori says:

    Haha. No, it actually started with a very short story in a book of short stories called Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. If you like short stories, you should try it; it’s super amazing. The story involves a Chicago L train ride. And it inspired my college thesis, which was a collection of short stories, all about a different person who goes on to the same train. I think I love trains too because of that transitional quality about them; there is so much you can do with a train ride.

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