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Book Review: The Tin Snail

Benjamin Shahrabani By Benjamin Shahrabani
May 28, 2014
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The book: The Tin Snail

Author: Cameron McAllister

Pages: 400, hardcover (also available as an ebook)

Purchase: Click here

Just before most unpleasant times unfolded in Europe during World War II, Citroën was busy developing its “TPV” Project. Pierre-Jules Boulanger, one of Citroën’s chiefs, laid out a design brief for a low-priced, “peoples car”. The car would be very fuel efficient, and the suspension would have enough travel or give that it would be able to drive across a ploughed field without breaking the produce it was carrying. The project, code-named TPV, which stood for “Toute Petite Voitur” or “Very Small Car”, was halted during the German occupation of France during World War II, and Citroën managers hid the project from the Nazis, fearing the enemy would steal the design and perhaps even appropriate it for some military application. After the war, development was restarted. The TPV became known as the 2CV in mass production which continued to be made until 1990, rivaling the Volkswagen Beetle for longevity. And so this becomes the background for Cameron McAllister’s The Tin Snail, loosely based on true events.

The story of the novel is seen through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Italian Angelo Fabrizzi, our narrator. At the outset, he is living in Paris with his parents, one of which, his father, is a car designer. After the success of one of his previous car designs at the Paris Motor Show of 1934, his father has unfortunately been able to repeat that success and failed to come up with new ideas, and so has fallen out of favor with his bosses at Citroën. Angelo is desperate to help his father. Whilst at a holiday retreat in a country house owned by Citroën chief Boulanger, Angelo notices how difficult it is for the villagers to manage simply with horses and donkeys. What if Citroën could make a car that wasn’t just meant for the wealthy? To be more exact the car was “to carry a farmer and his wife, a flagon of wine, and a tray of eggs across a bumpy field in a sleepy French village—without spilling a drop or cracking a shell”.   With the green light given by the Citroën boss, Angelo and his father set off to work on their “peoples car”, utilizing whatever resources they have on hand in the countryside. But war soon intervenes, and instructions come down from management to destroy the prototypes, but will Angelo’s father be able to go through with it, even as the German army descend upon the village? It’s now not a question of just designing a car, but also secreting it from the Germans who discover its existence, and want to find it.

The Tin Snail is a charming, and beautifully written adventure story with a little car at it’s heart. McAllister blends facts and fiction, but he does so masterfully that you don’t know where his writerly invention starts and ends. The characters are wonderful, imbued with much heart, and humor. The atmosphere of World War II, and war-torn France is drawn beautifully by the author, and each chapter is short, a little story in its own right, and accompanied by simple but line drawings by illustrated by Sam Usher. In his afterword, author McAllister gives us an explanation about the events that inspired him to write about “The Tin Snail”, and no doubt this will inspire some to research the the factual backstory of this car even further. It’s a great story in its own right. The publisher says that the book has “…a dash of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a pinch of Hugo, and a sprinkling of Dad’s Army”. I’m not too familiar with the latter, but I’d agree with the other two references. The Tin Snail is magical…and recommended for readers of all ages.

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