A journey through Purgatory takes amusing, appropriately elusive form in this mordant second novel by the English author of The Restraint of Beasts (1998). Mills's suggestive title alludes both to its (nameless) narrator's unfulfilled hope of journeying overland through Europe to India, and to Erich Maria Remarque's classic fictional account of the wholesale slaughter of an entire continent's young manhood. The story—told in a flat, affectless voice perfectly suited to its rural milieu—begins when its protagonist, "on holiday" at a lakeside campsite, accepts temporary work as a handyman for the phlegmatic Mr. Parker. All the narrator knows is that "Tommy" Parker is "into buying and selling"—farm machinery and oil drums—and is known locally, especially at the pubs the narrator visits nightly, for his terrible temper. One task after another (painting a fence, rowing boats broken loose from their moorings across a lake, taking over a milk run), accepted in lieu of paying rent, binds the narrator more firmly to the place he keeps planning to leave. Before realizing how acclimated he's become, he's an essential member of his favorite pub's darts team, and the compliant drudge who does homework for Mr. Parker's teenaged daughter. A hard rain on the day of his planned departure stalls his motorcycle—and Mr. Parker's firm hold on him grows stronger. Warned that he must finish all the tasks assigned him "before Christmas," the narrator gradually understands that, like the unidentified "one who was here before you," his is not to reason why, but to work as ordered, then pass on to whatever lies ahead (some very pronounced images of descent and conflagration judiciously scattered throughout the closing pages, pretty clearly indicate where he's going). Both Pilgrim's Progress and the nearly forgotten allegorical novels of T.F. Powys (e.g., Mr. Weston's Good Wine) come to mind. Still, this is an original and haunting creation: a vision of Judgment whose very opacity gives it impressive symmetry, comedy, and power.
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