Book review: The Signal Line, Brendan Colley

An award-winning novel that defies easy categorisation.

When professional musician Geo arrives back in Tasmania from an extended stay in Europe, he brings with him far more baggage than just his rucksack and viola case. Fleeing town in the wake of his mother’s death, and coming to terms with his estranged father’s passing in the interim, he only sets foot in the family home with the intention of selling it, and using his half of the profits to pursue his dream of an orchestral place, somewhere far, far away.

His brother Wes, who followed in their father’s footsteps as a police detective, but whose life has been slowly unravelling since the old man died, has other ideas. For Wes, the family home is his last connection to a past in which he had purpose, stability, and use. With his marriage failing, and his career on the rocks, the sanctuary the house offers is now his only constant.

Two brothers, on two very different tracks, one with a dream unfulfilled, the other with a dream in tatters.

Into this mix of conflicting emotions comes a ghost train, which mysteriously deposits a group of very confused Italian passengers at the old Hobart Rail Yard, on a platform that hasn’t seen an active train in decades. Wes involves himself in the investigation, hoping that the answers to questions his more staid colleagues refuse to ask will open doors that have been slammed in his face within the force.

Along the way, the pair will meet, and join forces with as unconventional a group of travellers as could be imagined: a South African conspiracy theorist, turned bookshop owner; a Swedish ghost train hunter; a French backpacker with a penchant for bone collection, and a Spanish guitarist for whom this offers the adventure of a lifetime. 

It is perhaps fair to say that when one think of urban fantasy, the ‘urban’ component is rarely, if ever, Hobart. Yet Colley takes a good stab at pairing the two in a unique and appealing way. To that framework he adds a tantalising ghost story, with elements of the police procedural, and a strong dose of down-to-earth, family drama and disfunction. It is a mix which, to be frank, shouldn’t work, and yet within the confines of The Signal Line, it does.

Read: Book review: Root and Branch, Eda Gunaydin

The end result is a unique novel, presented in sparse, crisp prose, centred upon the journeys we all travel through life, in search of meaning, belonging, and a greater understanding of the world. As a debut, it is all the more impressive, because it refuses to be pigeon-holed in the process. It is as idiosyncratic as the characters and the situations around which it is built, and contains a series of thoughtful, core messages that will stay with the reader long after the book itself has been put down.

It should also be noted that The Signal Line was the winner of the Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards.

This is philosophy, wrapped in mysticism, encased in a ghost story, in which a series of real, flawed, and essentially likeable characters become trapped, and grow. As such, it is a fine first novel that is more than worth carrying on a portion of your own journey along life’s train line.

The Signal Line by Brendan Colley
Publisher: Transit Lounge
ISBN: 9781925760941
Format: Paperback 
Pages: 304 pp
Publication Date: 1 May 2022
RRP: $29.99

Craig Buchanan is a freelance reviewer and self-professed bookaholic based in Perth.  He has a PhD in literature from the University of Western Australia, and reading interests (both academic and personal) that range from the earliest forms of medieval story telling right up to the present, techno-centric offerings of the 21st century.  His mother always said he should play outside more, but he was too engrossed to listen then, and he’s too old to change now.