If the title phrase ‘The London Train’ resonates in any way for you, I recommend you to try this elegantly constructed novel by Tessa Hadley. For me, ‘The London Train’ signifies a return to old friends, to the cultural wealth and diversity of London after living in a Northern city and latterly in the lush green rolling hills of Derbyshire. Just as the train links those different English communities for me, in the novel it links London with rural Wales and provincial Cardiff with London. And the London we are shown has many faces: an anonymous public housing estate, the National Portrait Gallery restaurant, the homes of the wealthy in Highbury Fields. It is against this deft portrayal of diverse places and landscapes that the plot unfolds.
The novel starts with the protagonist, Paul, visiting the residential home where his mother has just died. His feelings on her death-sadness, some guilt that he hadn’t visited often enough, reflecting on her life, touching her few precious things-draw us to him. He returns to the village in South Wales where he lives with his second wife, Elise, and two small daughters, and feels understandably out of sorts, unsociable, not himself. When he learns that his older daughter by his first marriage has left home and dropped out of college, he decides to go up to London to see her. She has moved into a tiny disordered flat with her new boyfriend and his sister, and though very different from the life he has been leading for the past 20 years or so, Paul is strangely attracted to the set up and ends up walking out on his life in Wales to stay there for an unspecified period.
This first narrative is followed by Cora’s story. We meet her first in Cardiff, where she is working as a librarian and living in the house where she grew up. Her parents have since died and she is doing the house up in her own style. Cora has left London and the older husband, Robert, she married when quite young. Their relationship has become jaded and Cora has recently lost faith in him, holding him responsible, as a Home Office civil servant, for a fire which broke out at an immigration removal centre. However, when Robert goes missing , Cora gets back on the London train, returning to their London flat to help Robert’s sister, Frankie, track him down.
One of the many compelling aspects of this book is the way the writer is absolutely contemporary in her depiction of character and background. We are presented with characters who are middle class in education and profession, and yet come from both the literate solid middle classes, established for generations, and from the newer class of university educated people from working class backgrounds. These differences, trivial to some, spark conflict and resentment between partners. I enjoyed the portrayal of Robert’s sister, Frankie, a sort of earth mother, about to be ordained, and his cousin, Bar, a painter living in rural chaos. Both are eccentrics with the class confidence not to care about convention. We are also shown the insecurity of Paul and Elise recently arrived in the country where conflicts with their neighbours over the felling of trees provoke self questioning about their identity – do they belong there? have they got the right to intervene to save the trees? does their neighbour’s view carry more weight as he’s been there longer? We know that in our small and mobile country a move to a rural area is common and so can entirely believe in the identity crisis this may provoke.
This combination of precise description with an undercurrent of instability is echoed in the writer’s depiction of place. We are treated to a fine description of Cardiff Public Library and of the council flat where Pia is living on the one hand. And yet the to-ing and fro-ing back and forth to London, the restlessness of the main protagonists, contributes to the feeling of instability and mutability beneath the facts of the plot and the choices the characters make. And the constant references to the unusual heat- is it climate change?- both reflect the real worries of our day and add to the unsettling tone.
Now it’s difficult to say much more without spoiling but I want to say that the final unsettling comes later on in the book when the unexpected had me revisiting assumptions I’d made earlier. The plot is laid out with extreme skill and yet character and motivation suggested with such a pleasing light open ended touch that it had my book group quite divided. I still find the characters slipping into my mind, in a vacant moment, gazing out of the train window, thinking about their motivations and wondering about their futures. And of their stories, running parallel for a while like train tracks, before merging, to divide again.