While recovering from breast cancer, a woman takes a job as a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse in an isolated Australian town, where she is beset by both inner and outer demons.
Eleanor Mellett is in her early 30s, recently single, and in recovery from cancer treatments that have culminated in a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. A support group misfit, Eleanor begins to keep a private blog as a therapeutic gesture. It is through this device that Eleanor’s “funny-angry” voice, the unchallenged star of this unconventional novel, dictates the reader’s experience of the plot. In short order, Eleanor moves to remote Talbingo to replace the angelic Miss Barker (who's disappeared), becomes involved with the erotically gifted vacuum salesman Gregory and his lumpen teenage brother, Ryan, and runs afoul of the small-town sensibilities of a host of characters, from the school’s ferocious front-office maven, Glenda, to the exorcism-happy Friar. Throw in an ominous “1960s sci-fi power station, like some kind of reinforced bunker where Dr. Evil might live,” a vengeful, reanimated hand, and the potentially sentient soul-transport bus of the title, and the results may seem like a hyperbolic decoupage of B-movie reference, each layer complicating and confusing the one before. What saves this book from the threat of murk, however, is movie director and writer Barrett’s (Rush Oh!, 2016) skillful deployment of the form. Eleanor’s voice is bold, frank, and savagely funny. Her observations about the intersections of cancer culture and the rom-com ideology of a certain kind of 21st-century feminism are so keen as to draw blood. Moreover, the total-eclipse–level narcissism of this personal-blog style neatly conceals how unreliable Eleanor’s perspective actually becomes. Readers will find themselves going to great lengths to excuse some of her more dubious behaviors—including, but not limited to: assault, breaking and entering, and potentially maiming the Friar. Eleanor begins her blog by stumbling through a world of familiar absurdity and ends it by stumbling out of a world whose absurdity has become frenetically surreal. The journey from here to there shows the alert reader a tremendous amount about both the rigidity of our social mores and the flexibility of our sympathies.
Narrated by a cybercentury Wife of Bath, this bawdy tale suspends both our disbelief and our scruples.