Book: The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett
Age/Genre: Dark Comedy, Thriller
Preferred Reading Environment: Maybe in a public place, so you don’t get the shivers being alone and start hearing weird noises coming from your refrigerator
Reading Accoutrements: Drink some wine along with Eleanor, the main character!
Content Notes: Cancer, Substance Abuse, Unwilling Exorcism
I found The Bus on Thursday on yet another “Read More Women” list on Electric Literature. It looked intriguing, so I did a little research. I kept seeing mash-up descriptions like ”Bridget Jones crossed with the Shining,” “Where’d you go Bernadette meets the Turn of the Screw,” and “Bridget Jones meets The Exorcist in Twin Peaks.” I love almost all of these things, so I figured this would be a good one to check out.
The Bus on Thursday follows 30-year old Eleanor Mellett after she is diagnosed with breast cancer. The story is told in first person, as Eleanor’s unpublished blog. She wasn’t going to scrapbook, and the counselors always recommend scrapbooking or journalling, so the blog option it was! She doesn’t plan on ever showing anyone these writings, so it reads like a diary. She opens talking about discovering she had cancer, getting a masectomy, and some of the emotional fallout she had as a result (it doesn’t help that she’d just ended a long-term relationship a few months before her diagnosis). After treatment is over and she’s in remission, she starts looking for a teaching job to replace the one she had to leave, and she finds a post in rural Talbingo (this book is set in Australia), at a school with 11 kids running from quite young to pre-teen. She sees this as a perfect escape from her currently-dreary life, and jumps at the opportunity.
Of course, weird stuff starts happening almost immediately. Eleanor learns that the old teacher mysteriously vanished, and she meets a host of strange small-town characters, including a priest who tries to “exorcise her cancer demon” and a craft-workshop organiser who is terrible at crafts. Eleanor copes with stress by drinking wine and being sarcastic, which I think is pretty relatable, if not completely healthy. But when you’re dealing with creepy priests, unexplained possible-ghost-busses, and dismembered hands, I feel like less-than-healthy responses are excusable.
Talbingo is based on a real Australian city, and the setting does feel very realistic. The small size of the town leaves a lot of room to describe things in great detail, and each little encounter holds a lot of weight.
I enjoyed the overall tone of the book, the honesty of Eleanor’s voice because she was writing stuff down she thought no one would ever see, and how proper grammar isn’t always used – just like in real diaries, blogs, and other personal journals. In one blog entry, she’s in a rush and really freaked out by stuff, so there are intentional typos, which I thought was a nice touch. Toward the end though, the blog concept kind of goes out the window. She’s telling things in real time, as they happen, and that is never really rectified.
Because The Bus on Thursday starts out immediately with Eleanor’s diagnosis, we get a pretty strong picture of the state of mind she’s in. The first 40 pages are just her coping and acknowledging some of the flaws in how she is going about it. She’s a bit unreasonable and not super empathetic toward other people (which made the Bridget Jones comparisons pretty apt), but she is also aware of how ridiculous she can be, and I thought this first part was a straightforward look at what a cancer diagnosis can feel like. Shirley Barrett based Eleanor’s experiences on those of some of her friends, but was also diagnosed with cancer herself while the book was being edited. She was able to go back and add some specifics from her own experiences, which I think makes the cancer aspects of the book really strong. It shows the reality of a cancer diagnosis in a dry, witty way.
So we have a strong sense of Eleanor before she arrives in Talbingo, and things immediately start going weird. It’s difficult to determine what the explanations are for some of the strange happenings, but I think that’s part of the point. I still have a lot of questions about what actually happens during the course of the book – What was real? Who was crazy? Is this town really that strange? – but I can live with unanswered questions, and it gives me a reason to read this again some day, which I definitely plan on doing.
What’s the last book you bought on a bit of a whim? Was it worth the read? Share in the comments!