2020 Reviews · dual time frame · fiction · historical fiction · mystery

Book Review: The Last Train by Sue Lawrence

Title: The Last Train

Author: Sue Lawrence

Published: January 24th 2018

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Pages: 352

Genres: Fiction, Historical, Mystery

RRP: $32.99

Rating: 3.5 stars

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.

Review:

‘We watched the train go over the bridge and then fall, tumbling into the depths.’

A bifold narrative that crosses 1879 and 2015, The Last Train is a mystery novel that encompasses intrigue, betrayal, speculation, lies, secrets and tragedy. This Scottish historical, combined with a contemporary fiction novel, links the puzzling events of two families who are separated by over one hundred years in the one gripping tale.

A terrible tragedy opens The Last Train by Sue Lawrence. In the year 1879, on a stormy winter’s night, a passenger train plunges into the icy waters of the River Tay. A new bridge constructed in the area is to blame and this engineering tragedy marks the loss of many innocent lives. At the heart of this tragedy is a woman named Ann Craig, the wife of the owner of a local mill. Ann believes her husband was on the ill-fated train. After she witnesses the train accident firsthand, Ann is haunted by grief, sadness and uncertainty. As bodies begin to surface and are pulled from the water of the River Tay, Ann is doubtful that her husband was on the train as the days pass by. The links to a mysterious woman who washes up on the shores of the river following the accident casts further suspicion on her missing husband. Moving forward in time to the year 2015, we are introduced to Fiona Craig. Fiona is haunted by the disappearance of her husband. Fiona cannot understand why her restaurateur husband would suddenly vanish without a trace, leaving his family bereft. As Fiona battles to uncover the reasons for her husband’s disappearance, she comes across a number of questionable facts and secrets that have a bearing on the tragic events that occurred in 1879.

The Last Train is a dual timeline novel that I found read as two individual stories. The ties between the 1879 and 2015 based narratives are actually quite weak and the links between the two storylines are not made until the latter stages of this novel. I enjoyed the historical component of The Last Train, much more than the contemporary element of Sue Lawrence’s book. I understand and appreciate the complexity of dual timeline based novels and although I was incredibly gripped by the historical aspect of this tale, the present day narrative seemed to pale in comparison. The Last Train is a fairly fast paced novel with short and succinct chapters that often include in a speculative cliffhanger. I found I was addicted to turning the pages of this one, despite my lessened interest in the modern day storyline.

I was immediately taken in by the horrific tragedy that unfolds in the opening sequences of The Last Train. I felt I was a cast as a bystander like Ann Craig and I watched on in complete shock as the train travelling on the newly built bridge near Dundee plunged into the depths of the icy waters of the River Tay. What a heartbreaking event and tragedy for all involved. The sadness of this incident is further extended by the lack of conclusive evidence as to how many passengers were actually on this ill-fated train and how long it took for the bodies to recovered. I was compelled to conduct my own investigations on this awful event in Scottish history while I was reading The Last Train. My online research uncovered an absolutely fascinating historical event, marred by complete tragedy. There is no doubting Sue Lawrence’s dedication to her craft in this area of her novel. We are presented with a rich and full history of this terrible sequence of events. I valued this portion of the novel very much.

In terms of the contemporary thread of The Last Train, I feel this was the novel’s weakest link. While I developed a great deal of empathy for the lead of this strand of the book, my interest waned during these acts of The Last Train. My heart went out to Fiona as her family as they struggled to understand what was happening to them. Lawrence works hard to build a level of tension, intrigue and mystery around this zone of her book. The end result was nothing too remarkable and I wasn’t taken by the very faint links to the past narrative.

Ann Craig, the principal character of the historical plot of The Last Train, was a fairly prickly and unpredictable protagonist in my eyes. My opinion of Ann changed as the story progressed. Initially Ann seemed to keep the reader at arm’s length, to the point where she seemed quite distanced and disconnected from the events that unfold. I did develop a level of sympathy for Ann and I did admire her true level of protection for her children. However, I soon grew tired of Ann’s rather judgmental ways. Ann also implicated a number of innocent figures in the duplicity element of this book which I won’t delve into any further due to spoilers. I was really at odds with Ann. What I will mention in reference to Ann is that the author worked to build a strong set of characters. The Last Train features good figures and villains, but it was the innocents that I felt deeply for. In particular, I felt a great deal of concern for the offspring who would continue to wear this tragic set of events for decades to come.

All in all The Last Train was quite a divisive read for me. The historical background and the presentation of events in the past narrative did have my full attention, while the contemporary thread unfortunately paled in comparison. Overall, The Last Train was a historically enlightening read based around a truly tragic accident in Scotland’s past.

The Last Train by Sue Lawrence was published on 24th January 2018 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of The Last Train, Sue Lawrence, visit here.

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