Paul should be happy. His life is filled with warm days in Wales, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. Though he hasn’t written much in years, the possibility exists that he could again — someday. Sometime. The idyllic country life is a far cry from his upbringing in England, and he likes it that way. It makes me feel . . . at peace, perhaps.
But a call reporting his mother’s death, though not unexpected, sends him writhing from his cocoon. And it’s not long before he receives more news — this time about his eldest daughter, Pia, born during his first marriage. She’s gone missing, her mother says; she hasn’t sent word of where she’s gone, just disappeared into the ether of London. And Paul — her distant, unavailable father — should recover her.
In the second half of Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, we meet Cora — a solitary librarian to Cardiff, Wales, newly separated from her husband and struggling to repair the crumbling facade of her childhood home. After escaping London and her life with Robert, a serious public official, Cora throws herself completely into the aging house. And just as she’s come to grips with her new world, something comes along to change it all over again.
A novel in two parts, we’re not told if or how these people know one another. We’re presented the facts — unchangeable; serene — by an omniscient narrator, someone who puts Paul and Cora’s defects and stunning qualities equally on display. We know Paul is not a capable man; we realize he’s not always a likeable man. But, despite everything, he’s trying. We think he’s trying.
Hadley’s novel has the unique distinction of being both high-brow and accessible. It’s not written with flowery, over-the-top language, but it’s not colloquial or dull, either. Hadley has a way of introducing us to people that we don’t particularly sympathize with but still feel as though we understand. Upon completing The London Train, I can’t honestly say that any of these people could be my best friends . . . but I don’t need them to be. I can read about them and their difficult, messy lives, then move on.
Very introspective, this novel falls into the category where not much actually happens — but so much does. As the story unfurls and reveals more and more about Paul and Cora’s lives, particularly in the past, we’re painted an accurate glimpse of two very interior lives. The novel could have become dry — very, very easily — but, you know? It didn’t. It really didn’t. I started reading on a Friday evening and wound up finishing almost half before my body threatened to pummel me if I didn’t sleep. Hadley’s writing is mesmerizing.
Though it lacked the strong emotional ties I crave to really make a book a favorite, I can certainly see why The London Train was longlisted for the Orange Prize and is generating buzz. The story’s strength, like all good books, lies with the characters. For good or for ill, these were people I really got to know. Without much difficulty, I could probably sketch you a list of their likes and dislikes, pains and triumphs. They’re people who will stay with me, especially Paul. It brings chance encounters to new, romantic and heartbreaking heights.
4 out of 5!