The Last Train…
About the Book:
Sue Lawrence serves up a brilliant historical mystery, meticulously researched and densely plotted, with plenty of twists and a gripping climax.
At 7 p.m. on 28 December 1879, a violent storm batters the newly built rail bridge across the River Tay, close to the city of Dundee. Ann Craig is waiting for her husband, the owner of a large local jute mill, to return home. From her window Ann sees a shocking sight as the bridge collapses, and the lights of the train in which he is travelling plough down into the freezing river waters.
As Ann manages the grief and expectations of family and friends amid a town mourning its loved ones, doubt is cast on whether Robert was on the train after all. If not, where is he? And who is the mysterious woman who is first to be washed ashore?
In 2015, Fiona Craig wakes to find that her partner Pete, an Australian restaurateur, has cleared the couple’s bank account before abandoning his car at the local airport and disappearing. When the police discover his car is stolen, Fiona conducts her own investigation into Pete’s background, slowly uncovering dark secrets and strange parallels with the events of 1879.
The Last Train is a fast paced mystery with a loosely linked contemporary and historical timeline. My thoughts are so divided over this novel. On the one hand, I couldn’t put it down. It’s structured in a way that just keeps you hooked: short chapters with cliff-hanger endings; well developed characters; a layered plot – in both 1879/1880 and 2015 – that was absorbing yet not overly complicated; an even distribution of story time between both of these eras; and a fascinating historical incident providing the catalyst for the events portrayed. However, I didn’t like the resolution in either era for either character.
In the contemporary era, the ending was rushed and unconvincing, consequently portraying the main character Fiona as naive and a little bit stupid, which she wasn’t. Betrayed by her partner, lied to and stolen from, it didn’t wash with me that she would believe his explanations and take him back so readily, risking the emotional well-being of herself and her young son. Her actions towards the end of the story did not measure up to my expectations that had been nurtured throughout. Up until this last part, I had enjoyed the contemporary side of this story immensely, although I will point out that the connection to the historical story was so loose, that this novel really read as though it were two separate stories in one.
The historical part of this novel, Ann Craig’s story, was particularly engrossing and moving. But again, the ending was rushed and the resolution for Ann was quite disappointing. It just didn’t pan out the way I had hoped. The incident of the Tay Bridge disaster was truly fascinating, and what a horrid tragedy. And avoidable too, as evidenced from later inquiries. All of the historical sections were a great deal more atmospheric than the contemporary, adding to the overall element of mystery greatly. Ann was not an easy protagonist to like. She was vain, aloof, judgemental, and snobbish. Yet as her own personal history unfolded, I developed quite a liking for her and could view her with empathy. She loved her children fiercely, nothing was going to get in the way of their well-being, and if I didn’t always like what she did along the way, I could certainly respect her motivations and the drive that fear had unleashed in her.
I hated Ann’s husband Robert. Despised him. He seemed to me to be an opportunist, a man who viewed himself as a saviour of women from the lower classes, moving from one to the other dispassionately. He had little to do with his children and was unaffectionate, yet he still intended on taking them from their mother, who loved them immensely and was solely devoted to their care and happiness. On two occasions, he exerted his patriarchal rights over Ann:
“I am their father, you have no rights to them.”
“By law they are my children, not yours.”
Her fears were rightly justified. Robert deserved what he got, but to my mind, Ann did not. But within the era, she didn’t have a leg to stand on. It seems incredible that a woman can grow a child within her own body, nurse it into existence, yet it not be considered hers. It’s appalling. Her fate devastated me, I had been nurturing a secret hope that the universe would be kinder to Ann, to women in her situation, but it was not to be.
I think I really just wanted this novel to be longer. An extra 100 pages, 50 for each era, would have allowed for these issues I had with the endings to be less rushed. I do recommend The Last Train, particularly to those who are fans of novels that are based on historical incidents. It will hook you from the outset and keep you turning the pages late into the night.
Thank is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Last Train for review.
About the Author:
Sue Lawrence is a journalist who took up writing again after winning BBC Masterchef in 1991. She was the cookery columnist for the Sunday Times then for Scotland on Sunday and also wrote for several magazines and appeared regularly on TV and radio.
Sue won a Glenfiddich Food and Drink Award in 2003 and two Guild of Food Writers Awards, in 1998 and 2001. She was President of the Guild of Food Writers from 2004-08.
She is author of 15 cookbooks and The Last Train, which was published in the UK as The Night He Left, is her second novel.