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May 26, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books Opinion |
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The Train to Paris by Sebastian Hampson [Review]

3 / 5 stars

A twentysomething Art History student at Vic, temporarily in Paris, writes his first novel about a 20-year old Art History student, on his way to Paris. Said student, Lawrence Williams, encounters a dazzlingly mysterious older woman who introduces him to the glamorous ways of the world with brutality and insouciance. That is, the fictional student does. The real one, we presume, was too busy writing a novel, and wishing to be swept off his feet by a dazzlingly mysterious etcetera.

A general aura of wish-fulfilment hangs heavily about the text, made awkwardly obvious in the regular compliments of Élodie, the vaguely defined etcetera, to our charming naïf – or is that naff? – of a hero. And so on and so forth. Glamour is not what it seems. “His first tailored shirt” is described in detail, as are flowers and lots of alcoholic beverages. Our hero wills himself “not to let any tears show.” Other people’s credit cards go zip-zip. Cigarettes burn out in ashtrays. The virgin ceases to be a virgin. And so on and so forth.

It was only occasionally that I found myself humming ‘This Charming Man’, but the general ambience of Morrissey circa 1983 abides. Ill-defined glamour and its rejection, solipsism, a general desire to see the good things in life but an inability to partake – but, unfortunately, to continue the Smiths theme, I was bored before I even began.

There is no central impetus to the novel, no certain spark. We all know how this story’s going to end. (Actual quote: “I can never stay in one place… rest assured that you are the only person who ever understood me.”) This might not be a bad thing; but nothing replaces it. The characters don’t manage to become independent of their plot functions. Lawrence perhaps has to be subservient to Élodie. But Élodie is thin, very thin, and never quite manages to become real. Her omniscience deprives her of any interest, her devilries are dull, and her seductions are boring, though the dialogue has an occasional tautness.

The prose falters: flat and heavy, it is overburdened with adjectives and light on the signification. As Élodie says, “Oh darling. You really do paint things so simplistically.” Here, for example, an elegantly-varied cigarette – a very tame vice – has to stand in for all the glamorous wickednesses in Paris:

“Resigned, I took the white stick and pressed it to my lips. It was as if I had inhaled a mixture of burnt tar and ashes. I coughed, but tried to subdue it. Élodie took the smouldering torture device back. It left a crude aftertaste.”

Lawrence rejects something boring Élodie offers. The prose hangs as heavy as the cigarette smoke, then resorts to childish over-emphasis. And none of it really means a thing.


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