This is another Australian book I've had on my to-be-read list thanks to Reading Matters' review of it. And as it turns out, it is the last of the Australian and New Zealand Literature Month books for me.
It is set in the seaside town of Thirroul, not far from Sydney, an actual place that D.H. Lawrence visited in 1922. He wrote a semi-autobiographical work about this visit, called Kangaroo which turns up in this book.
The railwayman of the title is a lovely Scot named Mac Lachlan who makes his way to Australia. In 1948 he and Anikka have a 10 year old daughter Isabel and they are introduced to us this way:
These are the sort of people they are, Ani Lachlan and her husband Mac. They are people who make a fuss of birthdays, people for whom no effort is too great in search of the perfect present, the perfect tribute, the perfect experience. Even during the war when their daughter Isabel had asked — impossibly — for a bicycle, Mac found the bits and pieces to craft a tiny ornamental one, to see her through until a proper one could be sourced, and saved for, and procured.
And the story is told lovingly, carefully, beautifully.
Mac did not fight in the war as his work on the railroad made him more valuable there. The toll of the war is very evident throughout the book: Ani takes food to all the women who become widows. Two friends, a doctor and a teacher who aspires to be a poet return unable to see themselves taking up their previous lives. And so it is all the more shocking when Mac dies in a train accident early in the book.
This is not just the story of the effect of Mac's death on Ani, Isabel, his mates at the railroad and his friends, but many chapters are devoted to what Mac thought and did over the years. We get to know him after he has died. Parallel to the story of Mac is the story of Ani, the doctor, the poet and his sister. The four sad people spend time together as they recover (or not) from their trials.
The railroad offers Ani the job of librarian at the station. (So railroads in Australia have libraries?) Ani does love libraries; in Sydney during the war she ducked into a building in a rainstorm and discovered a lovely library. The librarian she encountered said,
"There's something about a room for thoughts and words." It was a statement, simple and direct, but it rang for Ani with the sharpness of revealed truth. "I've always wondered if paradise might not be a little like a library,"* the man said then. "But that's probably a sacrilegious thing to suggest."
Of course I can't resist such a library-loving book as this.
*Addendum: Mr. Booklog pointed out that Borges said he had always thought that Paradise was a kind of library.
Ashley Hay, The Railwayman's Wife, Allen & Unwin, 2013, 302 pages. Available through Amazon.