Who wouldn’t want to live in an English rural backwater where there’s a little branch railway-line long since mothballed just asking to be restored? You could join a small society of passionate enthusiasts and dedicate all your spare time to finding engines and carriages, refurbishing and reupholstering and essentially going back in time.
In The Last of the Greenwoods, Zohra Dasgupta is a young postal worker, whose best friend Crispin has roped her into a group of railway restoration buffs. She’s only 25 and lives with her parents over their corner shop so seems an unlikely candidate for a pastime you’d imagine to be enjoyed largely by male retirees. The railway runs through Crispin’s father’s land, what there is left of it, formerly an estate of some standing. Crispin lives here with his father in a crumbling ruin of a once splendid mansion, camping out in a still liveable corner.
Working on the railway is a good way for Zohra to get out of herself and in particular the events of her last year of school which destroyed her will to go on to university and make her parents proud. But it comes to pass that Zohra is the postal worker who delivers a letter to two elderly brothers, Nick and Johnny Greenwood who live at the bottom of an overgrown lane in two railway carriages.
This is a big day for the Greenwoods. The letter, posted in Canada, purports to be from their sister, Debs. She is dying and wants to see her brothers again. The only thing is, Debs was murdered fifty years ago. It is also a big day for Zohra. The restored railway has tracks and an engine, but no carriages. Seamlessly, like railway lines converging at a station, the two storylines begin to merge.
I always enjoy Clare Morrall’s novels. She creates unusual and offbeat characters who you get to really care for, even these cranky old brothers who have forgotten how to communicate with each other. Everyone has an interesting back-story as well as needs that must be addressed as the story develops. We are shown Johnny and Nick’s dysfunctional family, their rivalry in love and on the tennis court; the hideous online bullying that has made Zohra a ghost of her former self.
The story chugs along to a terrific ending which shakes everybody up and rounds things off nicely. Morrall can always throw in drama with a bit of panache. Throughout, the writing is crisp, assured and laced with humour, making the book intelligent as well as hugely enjoyable. Four and a half out of five from me.