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A novel of train travel (Cairo and Khartoum)

27th June 2022

Overnight to Innsbruck by Denyse Woods, a novel of train travel (Cairo and Khartoum)

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A novel of train travel (Cairo and Khartoum)

I love it when a gem of a read unexpectedly comes into my hands. Overnight to Innsbruck has nothing to do really with Austria but is set mainly in North and East Africa, in the Sudan and Egypt, and centres on the Nile Valley train.

The novel opens in 1987 in the berth of an overnight train from Rome to Innsbruck. A nameless woman has bagged a berth and is preparing to settle down. She is sharing the compartment with a stranger. The ticking, clicking and hissing of the train set the scene, as the train is about to set off north and the door opens and another woman is ushered in. Richard and Fran know each other and the woman, lyiing stock still in her berth, is party to their story. It’s a clever device to have the rumble of the tracks form a background rhythm to a story, that actually unfolded four years previous. Their story unfolds, witnessed by the ‘sleeping’ passenger, whilst simultaneously pulling the reader into the compartment – basically, earwigging their exchange.

Richard and Frances were travelling on the Nile Valley train 4 years before. They got as far as Abu Hamed, where Richard seemingly alighted, taking his backpack with him. This stop is right in the middle of the Nubian Desert and is not an obvious choice for departure. As it was around 4 in the morning, Fran was sleeping and woke to find him gone, initially assuming an innocent reason for his absence – perhaps he was stretching his legs, getting a cup of tea maybe. But she soon discovers he must have left the train, as there is no sign of him. She second-guesses his reasoning for getting off – they had had another argument, and although he professed his commitment to their relationship, she can only surmise that he got cold feet and abandoned her. But would he really do this, in the middle of the desert? That is surely risky, and of course she then begins to overthink the predicament, and talks about her concerns with two fellow travellers, which then takes her in a wholly new and unanticipated direction (emotionally and literally).

The second part of the novel is Richard’s view of events – the woman in the bunk bed is still avidly listening to the story as it unfolds, as are we, the readers!

This is one of those novels that deserves a wide readership. It has an unusual construct and is wonderfully evocative of locale, and kept reading, anxious to find out how Richard and Fran’s story would end.

I suspect that the book cover is not doing the author any favours. I do like the design but it doesn’t reproduce well on photos and it is quite difficult to distinguish the title and the author’s name – and although the colour represents sand and desert, it makes the novel look quite dull and monotone, which I think puts readers off picking it up.

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