The synopsis gives us a flavour of what The Woman on the Orient Express has in store for us, promising secrets not easy to unravel on a journey on the iconic train line. The subject, ‘The Woman’ is Agatha Christie, the reason for the trip is an escape from England after the end of her marriage to Archie, the secrets… well it would appear that more than one passenger has something to hide.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a certain amount of discomfort when starting to read one of these factional tales, if for no other reason than it is not always clear where the lines between fact and fiction lie.
The plot is very much one of the time it is set in, being the 1928, a time when it was surely less usual for a single woman to be travelling to Baghdad but Agatha has that covered, she is travelling under the assumed name of Mary Miller. For her she wants to be well away from her home when Archie marries his second wife and with her daughter Rosalind at boarding school there is little to make her stay. Being a writer she can use the trip to come up with some plots for the books.
The chapters set on the train, are headed up with the legs of the journey, and it isn’t long before Agatha meets another young woman, Katherine Keeling who is a widow, making the journey to join the archaeological dig at Mesopotamia under the esteemed archaeologist Leonard Wooley. Later in the journey another young woman is introduced, one who is fleeing her abusive husband to stay with her cousin in Baghdad.
The book was far more evocative of both time and place than I expected, the descriptions of both the train and the destination of Baghdad giving this reader a flavour of what the trips that Agatha Christie did make, were like. The time period was underlined by the way the women conducted themselves with little interaction with others on the journey except those employed by the train company. Despite being in close quarters each of the women held key secrets back from each other which are only revealed once they arrive at their destination.
This isn’t a murder mystery tale, more like historical fiction with the three women at a crossroads in their life, all needing to face some truths from their past and then to find a way forward. That said, it is a very engaging story, with enough intrigue to keep this reader turning the pages to find out exactly what the outcome would be – reader be warned, this isn’t some saccharine sweet tale where everything turns out rosy! The book has a few scenes that are full of action which seem out of place in what at times feels like a woman’s fictional novel (and I don’t use that phrase in a derogatory manner), which indicates how hard it is to categorise this book. One of the jarring points was, as much as I love Poirot, the fictional Agatha hearing both the Belgium detective and her mother talking to her throughout the book was most off-putting, perhaps because I deem our heroine far too certain to have to listen to imaginary voices before taking any course of action.
Earlier on I mentioned the difficulty with identifying the artistic licence in this kind of writing so I’m pleased to report that at the end the author makes it clear which parts she took liberties with and which sources she used for the factual elements.
A surprisingly enjoyable read which gives a flavour of a key point in Agatha Christie’s life by weaving a story around her trip that felt reasonably credible.
I’d like to thank the publishers Lake Union Publishing, who allowed me to read an advance copy of The Woman on the Orient Express ahead of publication on 20 September 2016. This unbiased review is my thank you to them.