Published by Fleet
Publication date – 18 September 2018
Source – review copy
Bridget Jones meets Twin Peaks in this black comedy about a woman’s retreat to a remote Australian town and the horrors awaiting her.
It wasn’t just the bad breakup that turned Eleanor Mellett’s life upside down. It was the cancer. And all the demons that came with it.
One day she felt a bit of a bump when she was scratching her armpit at work. The next thing she knew, her breast was being removed by an inappropriately attractive doctor, and she was subsequently inundated with cupcakes, besieged by judgy support groups, and the ungrateful recipient of hand-knitted sweaters from her mum.
Luckily, Eleanor finds that Talbingo, a remote little town, needs a primary-school teacher. Their Miss Barker upped and vanished in the night, despite being the most caring teacher ever, according to everyone. Unfortunately, Talbingo is a bit creepy. It’s not only the communion-wine-swigging priest prone to rants about how cancer is caused by demons. Or the unstable, overly sensitive kids, always going on about Miss Barker and her amazing sticker system. It’s living alone in a remote cabin, with no phone service or wi-fi, wondering why there are so many locks on the front door, and who is knocking on it late at night.
Riotously funny, deeply unsettling, and surprisingly poignant, Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday is a wicked, weird, wild ride for fans of Maria Semple, Stephen King and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. And when have those three writers ever appeared in the same sentence?
Eleanor finds a lump. The lump turns out to be cancer. Whilst trying to come to terms with her mastectomy she takes a job as a teacher in a small town called Talbingo. It would appear that the previous teacher Miss Barker has vanished into the night. Eleanor can’t believe her luck, until she arrives in Talbingo. There’s a strange obsession with the missing teacher, the streets are empty and the house she is staying in, which happens to be Miss Barker’s, has a multitude of locks.
Eleanor’s tongue is so sharp she could cut herself at times. She is sarcastic, acerbic and belligerent, almost to the point of rudeness. She is also very funny. She has her own way of handling her cancer and the resulting treatment. Escaping to Talbingo is one of these ways.
There were points in this book where I laughed out loud at Eleanor’s ramblings. Told in a blog diary format, Eleanor pours forth her scorn on the people around her, her self-pity about her situation disguised as sarcasm, scorn and a barely concealed disdain for authority. She isn’t a completely likeable character and does seem to be on a meandering, and it has to be said, sometimes witty, road to self-destruction. There were times when I wanted to shout at her and tell her to be less Eleanor and more considerate. She is a terrible teacher, puts barely any effort into planning her classes and snubs the one gesture of friendship she receives. She argues with her work colleague and sleeps with the brother of one of her students, both of whom seem to have issues of their own. And then of course there is the question of the disappearance of Miss Barker, who is mentioned in such a way as she becomes a main character.
There is a small cast of offbeat characters in the novel, the sparsity of more characters lending the novel a distant, empty feel that adds to the surreal overtones. There is the work colleague who is mourning the disappearance of Miss Barker, viewed, it would seem, as an angel sent from heaven by parents, pupils and colleague alike. There is the timid woman she meets at church, who advises her to take the bus on Thursday, the brother of her pupil, who chases kangaroos and riles Eleanor’s hormones. The priest who believes that cancer is a manifestation of possession by the devil also needs to be mentioned.
The second half of the story doesn’t match the first half for humour and the beginning certainly doesn’t indicate how the story will develop. There is great sense of surrealism with The Bus on Thursday, a slightly sinister tone also runs through the latter half of the novel, a feeling of discomfort that still lingered long after the final page had been turned. I found the ending to be ambiguous, allowing the reader to make their own decision. I think I’ve made mine, though on finishing the book I was left with a feeling of being unsure what exactly happened, or was implied to have happened. I’m still unsure now, for at times I feel a little let down, at other times I feel it worked.
An interesting novel, in places funny, in other places disquieting, that left me pondering.
About the author
Shirley Barrett is best known for her work as a screenwriter and director. Shirley’s first film, Love Serenade won the Camera D’Or (Best First Feature) at Cannes Film Festival in 1996. The script for her most recent film South Solitary won the Queensland Premier’s Prize (script) 2010, the West Australian Premier’s Literary Prize (script) 2010, and the West Australian Premier’s Prize 2010. RUSH OH! is Shirley’s first novel. She lives in Sydney, Australia.
This was book five in my #20BooksofSummer challenge.