The Vignette-Novel Paradox: The Last Train to London Book Review

Official Blurb for The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton

In 1936, the Nazi are little more than loud, brutish bores to fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the son of a wealthy and influential Jewish family and budding playwright whose playground extends from Vienna’s streets to its intricate underground tunnels. Stephan’s best friend and companion is the brilliant Žofie-Helene, a Christian girl whose mother edits a progressive, anti-Nazi newspaper. But the two adolescents’ carefree innocence is shattered when the Nazis’ take control.

There is hope in the darkness, though. Truus Wijsmuller, a member of the Dutch resistance, risks her life smuggling Jewish children out of Nazi Germany to the nations that will take them. It is a mission that becomes even more dangerous after the Anschluss—Hitler’s annexation of Austria—as, across Europe, countries close their borders to the growing number of refugees desperate to escape.

Tante Truus, as she is known, is determined to save as many children as she can. After Britain passes a measure to take in at-risk child refugees from the German Reich, she dares to approach Adolf Eichmann, the man who would later help devise the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” in a race against time to bring children like Stephan, his young brother Walter, and Žofie-Helene on a perilous journey to an uncertain future abroad.

My Review

I have a tendency to begin with things I dislike about a book—I find it so much easier to articulate why something didn’t work for me than why something did. Perhaps because when things work for me, it goes smoothly and I’m not motivated to think about it too hard, whereas when I don’t like something, it irritates me and demands critical investigation. But, I’m making a point to be a bit more positive and first of all give books their due, rather than beginning with ripping them apart only to tack on what seems like grudging consolatory praise at the end.

Things I liked:

Walter, the little brother of one of the protagonists. He is a minor character who is fairly unobtrusive in scenes at the beginning, but the longer the story went on, the more he endeared himself to my heart. He is five years old, but read slightly older, while still keeping that childlike sweetness and questioning nature. His interactions with the people around him are realistic and it was cute and natural how he gave his stuffed rabbit a personality and how his brother and others play along, doing a rabbit “voice” and things that people do with kids and their make-believe worlds. He is not written like an obnoxiously babyish toddler, as a lot of kids tend to be in other books I’ve read. He was just a light in every scene he was in and stole my heart without me even realising it.

The subplot of Lisl and her husband (I can’t remember his name and don’t care enough to look it up) was so messy, full of betrayal, hurt, infidelity, and conformity to emerging societal pressures, yet in the end there was a redemptive element. It would be easy to paint the husband as an all around bad’un, but life is seldom that easy, and I liked the way Clayton showcased how even a “good” person can be driven to do awful things in the name of conformity and lose themselves and their character before they quite realise. But once he did realise it, he took steps to rectify his mistake and we were left with the possibility of reconciliation, without downplaying any of the awfulness of what had gone on before.

I also like the subtlety with which some pivotal, but troubling elements of the story were handled. A terminally ill character makes the choice to end their own life, and characters must separate from younger family members in a foreign country in order to ensure the little ones’ have a future. The way in which the latter decision was made was particularly well-executed and really showcased Clayton’s gift for understating powerful emotions in order to give them even more weight. The subtext was definitely shown to best advantage in these scenes, as they had a direct influence on the characters in the story.

Things I disliked:

That same subtext was not used to such good effect elsewhere, because in no other places I can think of did the subtextual hints directly lead to character action or development. There were so many scenes that were pointless and extraneous, containing information that could have easily been summarized or related elsewhere. The story is written in vignette style, but each vignette is still so tightly bound to the overarching plot that it isn’t purely vignette style, but something in-between vignette and novel. In my opinion, the result is that it fails to effectively be either. I realise it’s an intentional style choice, just one that I don’t like very much or think contributed anything to this particular story. And the scene switching between unconnected characters was so abrupt as to be jarring, giving the illusion of forward action without actually providing any. It dragged abysmally. As a result of the incomplete, disjointed scenes featuring characters I didn’t know and couldn’t relate to anyone I’d previously been introduced to, I found it difficult to form any connection to the main characters at all. Also, Adolf Eichmann’s POV scenes could have been cut altogether for all they contributed to the narrative—he had zero development and was as bland as a piece of white Styrofoam, like a fill-in-the-blank “insert stock Nazi villain here.” By the second part of the story, I felt like I hardly knew who anyone was, and I’d already been reading for 90 pages.

But as for what really ticked me off from the beginning was a strange synecdoche that emerged in descriptions of the female characters—the characteristics that were highlighted as serving for a whole description were inevitably breasts and legs. And it wasn’t just once, it was repeatedly. In the very second scene, we are drawn to imagine an adolescent girl’s developing breasts no less than three times, in the course of five paragraphs on two pages. Sure, the narrative “perspective” is partially that of a teenage boy, but it’s third person limited, so there is a certain psychic distance from his immediate thoughts. Mention it once, sure, that’s natural, but then move on, we get it. Also, has this boy never seen a female before? I completely forgot that she was also said at the same time to have glasses. Imagine my surprise when ¾ through the novel, her glasses were again mentioned and I was like, “Oh, did she wear glasses all this time? I wasn’t picturing it.” No wonder—as I was mercilessly bombarded with BREASTS in the scene where she first appeared. And it recurred near the end, wherein the boy was judging a Nazi for leering at the same girl’s chest; hypocrite, much?

Anyway. The other thing that rang odd to me was the description of a woman as “fashionably flat-chested.” For a minute, I was prepared to accept that this author has a fetish for describing women’s breasts or lack thereof, but then I was like, wait, what year is this? Fashionably flat-chested? Is it 1928? No, it’s 1938. Not even the beginning of the next decade when some fashion silhouettes might have held over from the previous one; it’s the end of the 30s, and soon moving into 1940s bullet-bras—I’m sorry, but if you’re female and flat-chested in 1938, you’re not fashionable. It was just kind of a terrible choice of descriptor all around.

To make matters worse, another main character, a nearing middle-aged woman, seems to have a leg obsession. She comments on the legs and shortness of skirts that a female colleague of hers has. In another of her scenes, she gives a movement-by-movement commentary of herself pulling on her stockings—over her toes, around her heel, etc. as if someone might think it was possible she’d done it in a different order. This is another example of the jarring pacing of the scenes, and how pointless some of them are—nothing else happens in this single-page scene, besides her briefly discussing with her female friend fears and desires about having children. But that’s a theme throughout her entire story, making the reiteration of it in this scene completely redundant. Near the end of the book, there is a mirror scene, wherein she minutely describes the play-by-play of removing her stockings—down the thigh, over the knee, down her calf and over her heel, off her foot. In case we weren’t sure she had all the standard parts. Is this an anatomy book or a novel? I understand some of these peeves are due to the vignette style of the writing, but as it contributed nothing to the larger story, it just grated on me and made me wonder what the author was doing.

In conclusion, this is a pretty standard wartime novel about fleeing Nazi occupied territory, smuggling children, and the general mayhem war and terror wreaks on those in whose countries it takes place. The writing style didn’t wow me, the pacing irritated me, and to be perfectly honest with myself and everyone else, if this book hadn’t been gifted to me, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. Just not my type of story.

View all my reviews

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