Friday, September 1, 2017

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

Just in time for all the documentaries on television commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, William Kuhn published a charming novel with Queen Elizabeth as one of an ensemble cast of characters. I had read Alan Bennet's An Uncommon Reader, which imagined the queen happening upon the bookmobile while walking her corgis, stepping in to look around and becoming an avid reader. I was amused to learn that the Queen in Kuhn's novel was aware of that book too.

In this particular story, the queen is wrestling with her place in Great Britain and the world. She's still stung by the reaction to her during the period following Diana's untimely death, and she even suspects she, like Diana, may be suffering from a touch of depression, the reality of which she was late to recognize during Charles and Di's marriage.

Kuhn interjects a number of quirky and interesting characters--her equerry and butler, her personal dresser and a lady-in-waiting, two women on whom she depends but who have no relationship themselves. He also includes Rajiv, a young Pakistani clerk at the local cheese shop and Rebecca, the girl who works at the Royal Mews.

When the Queen learns that Parliament is considering defunding the royal train, after already placing her yacht in dry dock, she goes gets a hankering to visit the yacht and strikes out with her handbag, but wearing a hoodie lent to her by Rebecca when the queen appeared in the stables not dressed for the weather.

The self-deprecating humor of the monarch as she wrestles with her own obsolescence is particularly charming. When she finds herself seated with a blind man, his almost blind wife, the guide dog, and a pierced and tattooed young man, they note her striking resemblance to Helen Mirren, but afford her the opportunity to spend a day in the midst of her subjects without threat.

Kuhn avoids being either over-sentimental or judgmental toward the Queen; instead, he shows her vulnerable human side. She finds herself caught with an audience of a performance of Shakespeare's Henry V, which she has learned from Rajiv only during this short time to appreciate. When the play is interrupted with the announcement of a nearby terrorist attempt, she gets the chance to follow her own mother's royal example, choose an appearance among the injured over her own safety.

The chapter titles, all yoga positions, point to the Queen's own yoga practice, an image that amuses, just as it also humanizes the octogenarian. I loved all the characters so much I hated for the story to end.

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