Review

The Train Now Departing: Two Novellas

by Martha Grimes

Martha Grimes, best known for her Richard Jury mysteries,
occasionally takes a hiatus from her usual fare and pens an
eloquent piece of general fiction that shines a spotlight on her
unique literary essence. As much as we adore her mysteries, these
periodic excursions reveal an even deeper insight into the human
soul with incomparable prose and copious emotion. Her artful
characterizations --- real treasures to be unearthed with every
turn of the page --- are the irrefutable substance of every
novel.

THE TRAIN NOW DEPARTING contains two literary novellas sharing a
common thread: emotional isolation. Each features a single,
middle-aged woman whose life is comfortably predictable but
conversely unfulfilling. And each of these women find themselves
irreparably jarred by the intrusion of a stranger into their
carefully constructed existence.

The first of these stories is entitled like the book, "The Train
Now Departing," and takes place almost exclusively in a variety of
restaurants. After a woman has an accidental encounter with a
travel writer, they strike up an acquaintance and begin meeting for
long afternoon lunches whenever he's in town. These poignant
interludes could easily comprise a one-act play --- the staging
consisting of a table and two chairs, the dialogue completely
self-involved with only an occasional interruption by a waiter. In
first person narrative, we are witness to the sad reflections on
her unremarkable life as this woman attempts to elicit conversation
elaborating on her companion's world travels. Despite her
frustration at the emotional distance between them, it soon becomes
clear that her isolation has been largely self-imposed; a
reluctance on her part to actively participate in the ebb and flow
of life going on around her.

"The years faded behind her, details slipping away. She felt she
too was fading into the background, her outline becoming less
clear, like a figure in a tapestry, uncertain and underwrought. It
was as much as a person could do to keep the dim colors of self
from fading altogether."

Grimes' genius at characterization is further evidenced in the way
she emphasizes this woman's anonymity by never assigning her a name
--- her only identity being "she." "She" had become a silent
observer, her fanciful musings taking the place of any tangible
interaction. Taking frequent refuge in the train station cafe, she
observes the occasional boarding or departing passenger; the
echoing emptiness of the station; the inactive ticket windows; the
nameless faces in the train's windows who, like her, pass through
but never disembark. It's this vivid Grimes' imagery that
ultimately forms the perfect metaphor for this woman's
life.  

The second novella, "When the Mousetrap Closes," is an interesting
title selection; the actual title of an Agatha Christie play that
has entertained London audiences for 48 continuous years. Grimes no
doubt chose it with assurance, as did the woman portrayed in this
second story.  

Edith, like her predecessor, desires to embrace more of life but
has never summoned the courage to take the initiative.
Subconsciously grieving over the loss of her mother, Edith is
anchored to the house and the life they shared, cocooned in the
safe sentimental past, unable to move on. She's become a master of
avoidance, proclaiming that any life-altering decisions will be
made "when The Mousetrap closes," and she's confident this is
unlikely. But a chance meeting with an actor who seems interested
in her companionship becomes an epiphany for Edith; a painful
recognition of the void hidden carefully under the surface.

"She felt somehow shamed that her life was so narrow, that it
covered such a small territory, that if she raised the spyglass she
would see nothing but blank gray water."

Through the beauty of her lyrical prose, Grimes strips away the
face of denial, exposing the sticky bog that can entrap us in a
state of emotional limbo. Finessing between moments of hope and
despair, the brutal honesty she imparts is so wrenching there's
almost an audible sigh in her words. And without even knowing what
strange twist these relationships will take, we too sense the
tragic inevitability.

Reviewed by Ann L. Bruns on January 23, 2011

The Train Now Departing: Two Novellas
by Martha Grimes

  • Publication Date: May 8, 2000
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670891541
  • ISBN-13: 9780670891542