Novel of the week

All Quiet on the Orient Express

Magnus Mills <em>Flamingo, 211pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0002259060

I don't know Magnus Mills' politics, but my guess is that he dresses to the left, as it were. I could imagine spending an enjoyable evening with him, over a few pints, having a good old grumble about Blair's new Labour. Clause Four would crop up, no doubt, somewhere between the pub and the curry house. Again, all this is speculation.

But Mills does this to you with his writing - he invites you to trawl for clues and signs and subtle nudges to the thrust of his polemic. (Double entendre, incidentally, is a speciality of his.) In this novel - as in his exceptional debut, the Booker-shortlisted The Restraint of Beasts - he shows himself to be adept at disguise and understatement. The prose could hardly be more straightforward, yet there is a pervasive sense of something complicated unfolding beneath the surface. The events described, too, are superficially mundane but taut with possibility; and even when drama occurs - random fatality, for example - the episode is related with no more emphasis than an account of the weather.

We are never told the name of the protagonist. He has left his job at a factory recycling oil drums and is taking a break in the Lakes before travelling overland to India. It is the end of the season and he is soon the sole occupant of a lakeside campsite. The landowner, Mr Parker, puts a bit of work his way, painting a gate. This leads to another small job, then another. He does try to set off for India, but his bike conks out a few miles down the road, and he resigns himself to settling in for the winter as an unofficial handyman. There are the rowing boats to be repainted, a mooring to be resunk, wood to be sawn . . . cash in hand, except in Mr Parker's world of barter and trade-offs, little actual money finds its way into our chap's pocket. Meanwhile his status in the decidedly odd and cliquish village has improved now that he is no longer a holidaymaker. He joins the pub darts team and, thanks to an unfortunate accident with a length of galvanised chain, lands himself the local milk round. Plenty of work, a few beers of an evening, pleasant countryside - not a bad life really, if he can avoid provoking Mr Parker's notorious temper and resist the allure of his boss's 15-year-old daughter.

A simple summary of the story does nothing to convey the atmosphere of Mills' fiction, its mood of suffocation and gathering menace. As in Kafka, a Mills hero is propelled by a series of circumstances that, taken individually, are logical and innocuous but which have the cumulative effect of entangling him in a life where he is no longer in control. Control is the key here. The relationship between employer and employed, the dividing line between employment and exploitation, the economic shift from manufacturing to services, the classic capitalist separation of workers from ownership of the means of production . . . a critical theorist would relish working up a paper on Mills as neo-Marxist dialectician. As a novelist he is so refreshingly original - in terms of style, subject matter and theme - it is astounding. He is also very funny.

All Quiet on the Orient Express does not quite have the edge of black humour of his previous book, but the sense of comic surrealism, in ostensibly realist prose, is as strong as ever. And if he is ploughing the same soil as before, well, he won't be the first fine writer to do that. Besides, this particular literary field has lain fallow for too long, and he turns it with consummate skill.

Oh, by the way, Magnus Mills used to drive a London bus for a living. So what?

Martyn Bedford's most recent novel is "The Houdini Girl" (Viking)