The London Train by Tessa Hadley


I greatly admired Tessa Hadley’s The Past and have thought about reading other books by her. She seemed to sketch her characters effortlessly without making them single dimension figures or being cruel or dismissive.

This one begins with a focus on Paul whose mother had just died. I couldn’t stop thinking of The Stranger by Camus; which begins, “Today Maman died.” The first line of this book is “By the time Paul got to the Home, the undertakers had already removed his mother’s body.” Paul, like the narrator, thinks he should react a certain way to this news, but just doesn’t manage it. While Paul doesn’t mindlessly kill a stranger on the beach, he is oddly heedless, leaving his wife and two young children for months. In so many ways he reveals himself to be irresponsible.

Paul and his family live in a small town in Wales, other important locations are Cardiff and London. The current event I noted that dates it was the resignation of Tony Blair which occurred in 2007; the book was published in 2011.

About halfway through the book, the focus changes from Paul to Cora. She had left her husband and moved from London to the house where she grew up in Cardiff, having spent months remaking the house. She was working part-time in a library, and several passages called to me from my years working in a library. “At first she had thought it might be her duty to encourage the borrowers, talking to them about the books they were choosing, but she quickly learned that they looked at her with shocked faces if she tried, as if their reading was a private place she’d intruded into.” And that fraught library task, weeding:  “At first Cora had felt it was an outrage, she had argued indignantly with Annette and Brian that they mustn’t get rid of Penelope Fitzgerald, or Colm Toibin. But she had got used to the idea. Everything had its moment in the sun, then must give way.”

And here I must either stop writing or insert a SPOILER ALERT. After a longish exposition about Cora, her connection with Paul turns up. Now we see the depth of his heedlessness from the perspective of those on the receiving end, Cora and his wife Elise. A large measure of passivity is involved in the character of Paul. Cora later is pulled by events back into the life of her former husband and the book ends on an inconclusive note.

Books that have separate expositions about two characters are often unsatisfying; it’s tough to get the balance right. In this case the connection between the two doesn’t clarify either of them. Each is of interest, but alone may not make for a novel. I did find that many passages were interesting and insightful in various ways.

Tessa Hadley, The London Train, Harper Perennial, 2011, 324 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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