Tessa Hadley’s The London Train
HarperCollins, 2011

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

It’s a little like Barbara Pym with trains, this second novel of Tessa Hadley’s: the characters, even those in relationships, feel decidedly solitary. (She has written three other works of fiction but two of them, she explains, were structured as short stories, though they were interconnected.)

Cora resolves to eat better, after her relationship has crumbled, and she shops and cooks purposefully, but sometimes scrapes the meal into the bin afterwards because she has no true appetite.

Paul is living at a distance from his wife, too, but it’s clear that they have been inhabiting rather solitary existences even while married.

These are lonely people and it feels as though simply adding a vicar would take them solidly into Pym-ness.

Here’s a bit from Cora: “Divorce seemed an exaggerated and crude instrument for prising them apart when they were already so remote.”

And here’s a snippet from Paul, who is touching his wife’s shoulders: “Through his hand, he seemed to be in touch with the surge of her inner life, which mostly wasn’t disclosed to him: deeper and more chaotic than it ever showed itself in the words they exchanged. He felt as if he hardly knew her, this wife and mother of his children.”

The London train — well, any train really — transports people between two points, their departure and their arrival points.

The London Train
transports readers between two narrators, their journey muddled, in the way that real life often is, the route sometimes circling back on itself and sometimes veering off in unexpected directions that result in sudden stops.

Paul doesn’t always take the train, but he often thinks about being elsewhere. Here is a peek into his thoughts when he has occasion to go to the airport: “But what if he didn’t go back? What if his life continued somewhere else, and was real differently?”

And just as he is wondering how he can change his own life, how he should seek to change it, whether he wants to…Cora is examining her situation as well and is equally unsatisfied.

“She has a vision of herself as a figure outside her own self-knowledge, emblematic, almost sacrificial.”

Cora and Paul have more in common than readers might expect, but The London Train is structured with two distinct parts. The overlap between these unsettled solitary characters is built subtly and while reading each of the narratives, their own personal preoccupations overshadow the interplay.

Each character is coping with unexpected personal upset and the details which surround those crises is at the heart of each narrative, although the bulk of the action unfolds in the interior.

Readers spend a lot of time in Paul’s head and then in Cora’s head. And, for the most part, while there, they are thinking ordinary and everything things.

Paul’s fears and uncertainties, Cora’s doubts and anxieties: these are the stuff of hundreds of contemporary novels. Add the flippy skirt and blooms that my P.S. paperback has on its cover and it might be tempting to dismiss this novel entirely.

But what was true of Tessa Hadley’s The Master Bedroom remains true for me with The London Train: the characters stand still and crumple and (sometimes) rise again in a way that feels very natural, believable and touching.

Because I don’t want to give anything away about the personal decisions that Cora and Paul grapple with in The London Train, I’ll pull this bit from The Master Bedroom to hint at the kind of choices they are facing:

“It’s possible, trust me. I used to think what you probably think: that everything we do endures, has consequences. But really, bits can disappear. We decide what happened and what didn’t. Whole pieces of our selves float off; they aren’t kept anywhere.”

Both Cora and Paul are trying to see if that’s true, if bits really can disappear, whether that’s a good thing even if it is possible, whether they have lost bits of themselves, whether they had had them to start them.

In The Master Bedroom, Tessa Hadley refers to Chekov and Flaubert; in The London Train, she refers to Anna Karenina and Henry James. The characters in these classic novels struggled with the same sort of questions so, yes, these characters’ stories have been told before, but I do keenly appreciate the way Tessa Hadley tells them.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 12 of 20 (Tessa Hadley)

Originality  Familiar territory: relationships
Readability  Action is largely internal
Author’s voice  Solid and unadorned
Narrative structure  Two halves that intersect
Gaffes  None spotted
Expectations  Enjoyed The Master Bedroom, longlisted for 2008 Orange

Companion Reads:
Jane Hamilton’s Laura Rider’s Masterpiece (2009)
Bonnie Burnard’s A Good House (1999)
Rebecca Gowers’ When to Walk (2007)