Souffle-light story that's just delicious

Nicky Pellegrino is amused by Mrs Windsor's rail ride to Scotland.

William Kuhn is better known for writing biographies. Mrs Queen Takes the Train is his first novel. Photo / Gregory Gaymont
William Kuhn is better known for writing biographies. Mrs Queen Takes the Train is his first novel. Photo / Gregory Gaymont

No one does whimsy quite like the English, and Mrs Queen Takes The Train by William Kuhn (A&U, $29.99) is pure, unadulterated whimsy. The story is souffle-light and entirely delicious, the writing nimble and droll. This is a novel with a twinkle in its eye.

Its plot is of the "what if" variety. As in, what if after decades shackled by royal life and beset by scandals the Queen took the opportunity to break free and act like a normal person for 24 hours or so?

As the story begins, Her Majesty is feeling glum. Her past has been traumatic and her future appears just as challenging. She is struggling to get to grips with the computer-age (especially twitter) and is reeling from the news the government wants to decommission the royal train when she still hasn't got over the loss of the royal yacht Britannia.

Even Her Majesty's new hobby, yoga, isn't helping her deal with the stress.

The Queen's adventure starts with her wandering over to the royal mews to feed her favourite horse some treats. Although it's a wet, windy afternoon she forgets to put on her coat. Not to worry, Rebecca, the beautiful stable girl, lends her a hoodie with a print of a skull on the back. So-dressed, two workmen fail to recognise her and the Queen is directed out on to the street where she finds herself alone.

That's when it occurs to her that she is tired of obeying the rules, and she seizes illicit royal me-time. What begins as a quick dash to a nearby cheese shop ends with Her Majesty resolving to visit Britannia, now berthed in Edinburgh.

As she boards a train to Scotland, the Queen isn't entirely unaccompanied. Rebecca has secretly followed, as has Rajiv, a cheese-seller of questionable motives.

Meanwhile, back at Buckingham Palace all is pandemonium as the Queen is discovered missing. Putting aside their personal differences, her dresser, lady-in-waiting, equerry and butler team up to track her down before yet another scandal breaks.

There is much comic potential in all of this and Kuhn is clever enough to make the most of it while not overplaying his hand. The Queen's impressions of the world, her interactions with ordinary people, as well as with her staff, all seem entirely plausible, even if the initial premise isn't.

This is Kuhn's first novel. Previously, he has written biographies of well-known figures, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The big surprise is that he appears not to be English at all but American. As well as his grasp of the art of whimsy, he has a grip on Britain's social structure, the tension between modern and traditional, the inner workings of palace life and the vagaries of train travel.

Mrs Queen Takes The Train is a sweet little story; one to save for lazy-day summer reading when you want gentle entertainment rather than a challenge.

- Herald on Sunday

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