Monday, November 05, 2012

Mrs Queen Takes The Train reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

No one does whimsy quite like the English, and Mrs Queen Takes The Train by William Kuhn (A&U, $29.99) is pure, unadulterated whimsy. The story is soufflé-light and entirely delicious, the writing nimble and droll. This is a novel with a twinkle in its eye.
Its plot is of the “what if” variety. As in, what if after decades shackled by royal life and beset by scandals the Queen took the opportunity to break free and act like a normal person for 24 hours or so?
As the story begins Her Majesty is feeling glum. Her past has been traumatic and her future appears just as challenging. She is struggling to get to grips with the computer-age (especially twitter) and is reeling from the news the government wants to decommission the royal train when she still hasn’t got over the loss of the royal yacht Britannia. 
Even Her Majesty’s new hobby, yoga, isn’t helping her deal with the stress.
The Queen’s adventure starts with her wandering over to the royal mews to feed her favourite horse some treats. Although it's a wet, windy afternoon she forgets to put on her coat. Not to worry, Rebecca the beautiful stable girl lends her a hoodie with a print of a skull on the back. So-dressed two workmen fail to recognise her and the Queen is directed out on the street where she finds herself alone.
That’s when it occurs to her that she is tired of obeying the rules, and she decides to seize some illicit royal me-time. What begins as a quick dash to a nearby cheese shop ends with Her Majesty resolving to visit Britannia, now berthed in Edinburgh.
As she boards a train to Scotland, the Queen isn’t entirely unaccompanied. Rebecca the stable girl has secretly followed, as has Rajiv, a cheese-seller of questionable motives.
Meanwhile back at Buckingham Palace all is pandemonium as the Queen is discovered missing. Putting aside their personal differences, her dresser, lady-in-waiting, equerry and butler team up to track her down before yet another scandal breaks.
There is much comic potential in all of this and Kuhn is clever enough to make the most of it while not overplaying his hand. The Queen’s impressions of the world, her interactions with ordinary people, as well as with her staff, all seem entirely plausible, even if the initial premise isn’t.
This is Kuhn’s first novel. Previously he has written biographical accounts of the lives of well-known figures, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The big surprise is that he appears not to be English at all but American (he lives in Boston Massachusetts). As well as his grasp of the art of whimsy he has a grip on Britain’s social structure, the tension between modern and traditional, the inner workings of palace life and the vagaries of train travel.
Mrs Queen Takes The Train is a sweet little story; one to save for lazy-day summer reading when you want gentle entertainment rather than a challenge.
Nicky Pellegrino,(right), an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on Sunday 4 November, 2012.
Her latest novel When In Rome is set in 1950s Italy and was published in September.

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