The first part of a Melbourne-set trilogy, The Art of the Engine Driver is a luminous tale of ordinary lives, of ordinary people living in an ordinary (relatively new) outer suburb in 1950s Melbourne.
Vic, Rita and their son Michael walk along their street towards the party arranged by neighbour George to celebrate his daughter’s engagement. As the three walk the short distance, so they each fall into snatches of memories of recent (and not so recent) events.
But they also walk with, alongside or on the opposite side of the road to other party guests and, slowly, a composite picture of the neighbourhood and its residents is built.
With a fine eye for detail, Carroll observes and writes of the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations of the locals. But it is through Vic, Rita and Michael that the novel builds – Vic the alcoholic who, as a train driver, needs to keep his dependency secret from his employers; Rita the travelling sales woman who regrets ignoring her mother’s warnings about Vic and the young cricket-mad Michael, a boy who has his own secrets.
Developing alongside Vic and his family’s story is the secondary tale of the Melbourne to Sydney diesel locomotive setting off from Spencer Street Station at the time the local residents are heading towards the party. From the onset we know it is heading for disaster, but Carroll cleverly builds up the suspense to head towards a totally unexpected denouement.
The Art of the Engine Driver is a wholly engaging novel. Through wit, pathos and humour, we are drawn into the lives of the characters populating the novel – even if, on the surface, there is little depth to the characters or story evolving on the pages before us. It unquestionably grows on the reader.
Published in 2001, The Art of the Engine Driver was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award (Carroll’s first) but lost out to Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. Carroll won the Award in 2008 with The Time We Have Taken, the final book in what became known as The Glenroy Novels.