Magnus Mills may have single-handedly invented a new fictional genre: the Kafkaesque novel of work. First, his Booker-shortlisted The Restraint of Beasts
brought to fence building the kind of black humour found in a Coen brothers movie. Now, in All Quiet on the Orient Express
, Mills turns his deadpan prose on some very odd jobs indeed. The unnamed narrator is on holiday for a few weeks, camping in the Lake District before beginning an extended journey to India. He sees no reason not to agree when the campground owner--the sinister Tommy Parker, who seems mainly to engage in "buying and selling"--asks him to help out with a simple chore. As this is a Magnus Mills novel, however, no chore can possibly be simple. Through error or bad luck, one task leads to another and the narrator quickly finds himself trapped by his own passivity and a very English reluctance to cause a fuss. Soon he's doing homework for Parker's daughter, being kicked on and off the darts team at the local pub and learning how to perform a series of menial jobs. ("Have you ever operated a circular saw?" "Driven a tractor before?" "What are you like with a hammer and nails?")
There's a lot that's strange about this little town. Where have all the females gone? Why does everyone seem to think he should take over the town milk route? Why won't the shops stock his beloved baked beans? Both the grocer and the pub are oddly eager to let him run up tabs and there's no sign of payment from Tommy Parker. It seems, in fact, that the narrator's early suspicions have been fulfilled: "I'd inadvertently become his servant." Like the Hall brothers from The Restraint of Beasts, Parker is volatile, irrational and all-powerful--a primitive god ruling over his own creation. As the narrator falls further and further under his sway, All Quiet on the Orient Express becomes a striking allegory of labour and capital, purgatory and judgement, and the uncanniness of manual work. --Mary Park
The Independent on Sunday, 19 September 1999
The arrival of Magnus Mills on the British literary scene is extraordinarily refreshing. He represents a genuinely avant garde voice who has breathed new life into the genre (if it can be called a genre) by flouting all expectations of what a novel can be about... Mills is genuinely unique, but if he is to be placed anywhere in the jigsaw of literary history, he will have to slot between Albert Camus and Enid Blyton. [He is] oneof the handful of British writers to work in a unique fictional universe. For this, Mills is to be treasured and revered. You cannot ask more of a book than for it to make the familiar seem fresh, strange and scary. In a modest, sneaky way, Mills pulls this off better than any other writer at work today.