The Sleeping Car Porter – Suzette Mayr (Dialogue Books 2023)

This is award-winning Canadian author Suzette Mayr’s fifth novel and was the 2022 recipient of the Giller Prize for Canadian writing.  Set in 1929 largely on a long train journey from Montreal to Vancouver where the focus is on main character Baxter, a black gay man who has taken a position as a sleeping car porter to help fund his dream to study dentistry.  We see the passengers through Baxter’s eyes as he strives to get tips and avoid complaints which would lead to demerits and being fired.  He is close to his fund-raising goals so this trip is very important for him.

It’s written in the present tense which is never my favourite narrative structure.  I can find it confusing and a little one-note and there is a danger we fall into stream of consciousness territory.  Baxter has to function very much in the moment, responding to demands and crises so it might seem fitting but then this is not actually his narrative, it’s third person.  I can see why it works to a point but I might have liked the author to mix it up a little but admittedly as time goes on and the exhaustion of both staff and passengers brings in surreal elements the layering of event after event does work well.

Baxter is the shining gem of this novel, unable to afford to eat properly and with little rest he is susceptible to hallucinations and his choice of sensational sci-fi reading material in his rare downtimes gives the potential of a nightmarish edge to the proceedings. Attitudes towards race are explored skilfully as the passengers need this man to be both largely invisible and yet answerable to their beck and call- his individuality dismissed by the generic name “George”, which is not his name.  (I didn’t know about this but this was obviously a thing at the time as the author’s bibliography references works such as “Hey Boy! Hey George!: The Pullman Porter”, “They Call Me George” and “10,000 Black Men Named George”).

When Baxter discovers a postcard whilst cleaning we suspect that his route to his dentistry dream will not run smoothly with a creeping inevitability which the author handles very well.  It’s a chilling depiction of the sleeping car porter’s role which was arduous and fraught with a whole range of dangers brought to life in this engaging novel.  Whilst reading this I realised I have read very little Canadian literature and that this particular train journey might just have opened up a whole new reading world for me.

The Sleeping Car Porter will be published in the UK by Dialogue Books on 18th May 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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