Trans-Siberian Train on its way to Vladivostock

Book review: ‘Around the World in 80 Trains’ by Monisha Rajesh

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The story of a 45,000-mile rail adventure told with artistic precision.

At first glance, Monish Rajesh – a young, yet already highly experienced London journalist and editor of Indian and British origins – is an unlikely train buff. I haven’t read her first book, ‘Around India in 80 Trains’, so opened her second, ‘Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000 Mile Adventure’ (Bloomsbury, £20, ISBN 9781408869758), with a touch of scepticism, ready to dismiss it as yet another ‘Brysonesque’ travel opus undertaken by trains for the sheer convenience and full of half-hearted and pseudo-ironic observations of people and places from the train window.

To make it worse, Rajesh travelled in the company of her husband Jem – a posh London lad, who, in her own words, was “not used to bags that were not on wheels”, which made the whole endeavour resemble a leisurely family holiday, at the publisher’s or someone else’s expense, camouflaged as a travelogue.

How wrong I was! By page 3, I was in love with this book, which not only made me laugh out loud repeatedly (a rare occurrence, let me assure you), but also often look up from the page to savour the truly artistic precision of Rajesh’s impressions and views.

Rajesh is certainly in possession of a rare writer’s gift comparable to that of a good actor who can read the phone book and still make it sound exciting for the audience. As she rattles along through countries and continents, her attention to detail is astonishing. She is also as smart as a whip and doesn’t take no for an answer.

Here’s her reaction on realisation that they had taken the ‘wrong’ Trans-Siberian train while in Russia: “... we were the only foreigners on the train. Having looked through travel-agency photos of the Rossiya service, we’d expected air-conditioned cars with soft berths, power sockets and flat-screen TVs, only to find ourselves staring down a grubby hard sleeper with a broken window and a condom wrapper under the seat.”

I came to admire Rajesh’s turn of phrase and her stylistic prowess (her time as a sub-editor for The Week magazine must have come in handy). She doesn’t mince her words when asserting that “the French cared for nothing else when it came to meal times”, or when describing a deserted transit stop in France where “... we shared a Coke and paced the cool empty station, listening to the squeak of our footsteps and admiring the domed roof, the interior of which was engraved with four partly clothed women...” Having travelled extensively in rural France, I was able to recognise the place immediately.

Rajesh is equally skilled in describing the countless characters she and Jem bump into in Russia and Canada, in Mongolia and North Korea, as well as the no-less-peculiar trains in all of those countries and many more.

The only issue I could take up with Rajesh is that of the book’s title, which is of course a take on Jules Verne’s classic ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. Being so sensitive and hostile to cliches, she, for some reason, chose to use one in the title not just of this book, but of her previous travelogue too. Why 80 trains and not 50 or a hundred? With all her considerable writer’s skills and imagination, she could have come up with something more original, I am sure.

Title aside, to me this book was one of the pleasantest literary surprises of recent years. I have already ordered ‘Around India in 80 Trains’ too and am happy to recommend E&T readers to do the same.

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