‘The Bus on Thursday’ by Shirley Barrett will appeal to those with a certain sense of humour, most likely a dark one. It opens with Eleanor Mellett discovering that she has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at the age of 31. After being dumped by her boyfriend, she gets a new job teaching at a tiny school in Talbingo (population: 241) in a particularly remote area of rural Australia. The previous teacher, Miss Barker, has gone missing in mysterious circumstances and the oddball residents are bewildered by her sudden disappearance.
Eleanor tells her story through a series of short blog posts in a chatty voice, being a lot more frank about the realities of cancer diagnosis and treatment and the effect it has had on her mental health than many of the most “honest” cancer blogs. She struggles to find her place in the world after recovering from a serious illness and it’s unsurprising that arriving as an outsider in an isolated community doesn’t particularly help with this. She starts an affair with the older brother of one of her students which eventually leads her to find out more about what happened to Miss Barker.
There have been a few films in recent years such as ‘Get Out’ and ‘Midsommar’ which are classified as horror but also have some very effective comedic elements. It’s quite rare to find this sort of genre in books, and even rarer to find it done well, but I think ‘The Bus on Thursday’ succeeds in allowing the humour to enhance the genuinely unsettling occurrences in the story and the pervading atmosphere of something being not quite right. The book begins with more humour and less horror while the final few chapters are definitely less funny and more weird and hallucinatory. The ending is open-ended and not entirely clear with a lot of unresolved questions, with the uneven tone perhaps representing Eleanor’s precarious state of mind.
The humour in ‘The Bus on Thursday’ was always going to prove divisive (as shown by the one-star Goodreads review criticising Eleanor for being a bad example as a teacher), but if you are not too offended by the likes of Ottessa Moshfegh, then you can probably handle this one too. Overall, ‘The Bus on Thursday’ is a bit of a Marmite book which I found oddly endearing in a really messed up way.