What a strange but wonderful little book. Set nowishly, Mrs Queen Takes the Train follows Queen Elizabeth through a day when she's feeling a little down and decides the solution is to visit some of her favorite things (yep, like the song). She starts with a little wander to the Royal Mews but ends up straying further afield to a cheese shop in London that sells to the Palace and then all the way to Edinburgh to visit the decommissioned royal yacht, Britannia. Naturally, this causes a bit of a panic among her staff, who scramble to find her and to keep the news of The Queen's going "walkabout" away from the press. The novel is really the story of her staff (a young woman who works in the Mews, a young man from the cheese shop, a young vet currently serving as her equerry, one of the Palace senior butlers, her dresser, and one of her ladies in waiting) as much as it is the story of The Queen's Day Out. And somehow Kuhn manages to pull it all together and tell a satisfying story, one that does justice to all of his characters.
The novel is not perfect, however. The question (brought up repeatedly) of whether The Queen hasn't gone just a little peculiar is never really resolved. (Though the suggestion that she might be depressed is handled well.) It's clear in the end that The Queen knows what she's about and feels a renewed sense of how she can serve her country through her position, but one never fully understands whether The Queen has come round to her senses or was simply more sensible than everyone else all along. And the failure to answer that question rankles a bit, especially since this is a novel about a real person, still living. Is Kuhn making some sort of statement about The (real) Queen? Is it even possible to read the book without assuming he is, given his subject matter? If he is, what was the statement? If he's not, what does that mean? You write a novel about a sitting monarch, you can't pretend you haven't written a novel about a sitting monarch. What do you mean by it, Will? You can't escape the question by not answering it, dang it. (I had pretty much the same problem with Allan Bennett's wonderful The Uncommon Reader--brilliant novella, but it doesn't fully account for itself, somehow.) So there's that little niggle twitching away the whole time one's reading, and it can't help but detract a bit from the experience. But the novel manages to be lovely anyway, so.
My only other quibble is Kuhn's use of pictures. Every so often, the text includes a black and white reproduction of a real photograph--sometimes of The Queen, sometimes of people she knew or places referenced in the story. Why? I ask you. Why? It doesn't rise to an experiment with form, but neither does it sit comfortably in the tradition of illustrated classics or the like. It seems only to underline the fact that the novel is about a Real Person, which, honestly, who could have missed that?
These complaints aside, this was one fun, engaging, satisfying read. (I can imagine myself just flipping through and rereading some bits just for the joy of returning to them--especially the scenes with Luke, the equerry, who should have his own book.) It will almost surely be in my top five reads for the year. Recommended.
This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.