The London Train, by Tessa Hadley

Purchased from the Book Depository

Consider this as the first of two related posts. Quite by coincidence, I’ve just read two books — The London Train by Tessa Hadley and The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright — that have so many similarities that they almost demand comparison. Both feature central characters who find themselves drifting along in a marriage which has lost whatever spark it once had. In both novels, the death or impending death of a mother provides the intitial shake-up in circumstances that produces a move to change. An affair — more fallen than jumped into — is the response. Children, or their absence, provide a counterpoint. The similarities extend beyond the story to the narrative style — just as their characters are placid and avoid drama, both Hadley and Enright opt for prose that pays attention to detail and downplays action. And, to complete the comparison palette, both novels are being touted as Booker longlist contenders — I’ll offer my own Booker vote on the mini-contest at the end of my next post, a review of Enright’s novel.

The London Train is actually two connected novellas — one of the title of the book, the other called Only Children. Both involve journeys on the train between Cardiff and Paddington, similar sets of circumstances and some overlapping characters. The project as a whole is probably best regarded as two views, from different sets of eyes, at the same types of conditions and locations.

The reader is introduced to Paul in The London Train as he arrives from Wales at the Home in Birmingham where his mother has just died. His passive character is introduced immediately:

By the time Paul got to the Home, the undertakers had already removed his mother’s body. He protested at this, it seemed done in indecent haste. He had set out as soon as they telephoned him: surely they could have waited the three or four hours it had taken him to get there (the traffic had been heavy on the M5).

Paul doesn’t like change or action — he’d rather the world waited for him. Hadley wastes little time in setting up the key dramatic tension of her story. After a few pages exploring Paul’s thoughts about his mother (and memories of his upbringing), chapter two opens with him thinking that he should call his first wife, Annelies, to let her know. His phone rings and it is Annelies — after a quick power exchange (“he cut her righteousness off in mid-flow” by telling her Mum died yesterday), she tells him that their university student daughter, Pia, has disappeared from home in London, along with all her things.

Paul’s present life is aimless, although it has material stability thanks to his second wife, Elise. He’s a “writer” — actually has produced a couple of minor books on unrelated subjects, writes poetry reviews and once tried (unsuccessfully) to write a novel. Elise, on the other hand, is a commercial success in the furniture restoration business:

In the barn, planes of yellow sunshine swam with motes of dust from the cloth Elise was using to cover an early Victorian chaise lounge, a raspberry velvet with a fine pattern in it, like tiny leaves. Her business partner, Ruth, scoured the sales and auction rooms for unusual pieces, found buyers for their finished products, and delivered them; Elise repaired and upholstered and French-polished as necessary. They had a genius for spotting derelict bits of junk and seeing how they could be made enchanting: the pieces always looked as if they were smuggled out of Alice in Wonderland, thick with mockery and magic.

Paul is soon off to London, at Annelies’ request (Pia has phoned to say she is fine but won’t say where she is), to search for his daughter. He finds her remarkably quickly (Hadley’s plot developments are not nearly as strong as her description), living in a near-squat with a Polish brother-sister pair. The final dramatic element has been put in place.

The bulk of the novella sees Paul wandering (literally, as he frequently takes the train between Cardiff and London) from element to element — childhood memories, unavoidable tensions at his country home in Wales, trying to deal with Pia, her circumstances and her new friends. Along the way we discover that he has had a few desultory affairs and, indeed, contemplates a new one with the sister half of Pia’s new friends, a woman young enough to be his daughter. He is not an action-oriented person — Hadley’s treatment of each of these story lines is to use them as opportunities for description, both physical and emotional.

Only Childlren, meanwhile, opens in a near-echo of the first novella. Cora is in her parents’ home — her mother has died recently and she is renovating it in preparation for resale. She is remembering her wedding day, 12 years earlier, a rainy day that had threatened the plans to walk in procession to the church for the ceremony:

It had cleared up anyway later in the morning, the sun had blazed on the grass in the park pearled with little drops as she walked on her father’s arm, white dress dragging in the dirt of the Cardiff city pavement, from the front door of their house to the little church on the corner. They normally only came to this church when it was used for concerts; Cora had performed on the clarinet in here, on occasions organized by her music teacher. Her mother had been agonised, wanting to pick up the dress out of the wet dirt, afraid to countermand her headstrong daughter. Cora had loved the weight of the skirts kicking against her limbs; she had loved the passers-by, dog-walkers in the park, stopping to watch; she had laughed at her mother.

She thought of these scenes now with derision. They made her sick.

Cora’s life, in many ways, is a mirror image of Paul’s. She and husband Robert live in London — while she is a qualified teacher she is now working part time, aimlessly as a library assistant, comforted by the boring routine. Robert is a senior and successful civil servant in the Home Office, so they too live in material comfort. Ennui and lifelessness have come to dominate the relationship. She can’t stand Robert anymore (not for any active reason) and the Cardiff project offers a temporary escape; indeed, she decides to move back into her parents’ house in a trial separation.

All of this involves a number of trips between London and Cardiff and on one of them she strikes up a relationship with a seatmate that turns into a passionless affair — like Paul, Cora is more interested in not being in her current circumstances, rather than making a proactive choice about new ones.

So the two parts of The London Train train both focus on listless characters who are content to go with the flow, even if they don’t much like it. If I can extend the metaphor, the placid stream they are used to turns into unexpected rapids — but even here they are content to tumble, rather than steer, their way through. It is a not uncommon literary device; two books reviewed recently here, Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good and Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good, both started from the same premise. The difference is that while Grant and Hornby (and I much preferred the Grant) use this is a stage to explore the external circumstances, Hadley turns her focus inward to what is going on inside the minds of her characters.

My tastes run to that external exploration, so I found much of this book frustrating. Neither Paul nor Cora caught my sympathy (or distaste, for that matter) and the subordinate characters around them seemed placed more for convenience than development. Having said that, others are going to find more in this book than I did. Hadley’s introspective focus does allow her to apply her excellent descriptive abilities on almost every page (I hope the quotes illustrate that). I would conclude by observing that she is an accomplished short story writer and it shows in these two novellas. There are some truly excellent sections and, indeed, that may have been my greatest problem with the book — some great scenes that never came together properly for me into a bigger picture.

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15 Responses to “The London Train, by Tessa Hadley”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I am usually annoyed by passive characters. It sounds as though both Paul and Cora would fall into that category.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Given what I know of your tastes, I’d say this is not your kind of book at all.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    okie-doakie then

  4. savidgereads Says:

    Great post Kevin. I was utterly frustrated with this book, though I am aware some people have absolutely loved it, because if the passivity of the characters and the way they just sort of muddled on. I know we do this as people but I just couldnt connect to either one of them and actually found myself thinking ‘oh pull your fingers out you pair of…’ I know books arent about having likeable characters (I have just reviewed ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris and the narrator their is a real mixed bag of good and wicked but shes utterly readable) but these two had no spark, no umph, and it just wound me up.

    If I hadn’t been reading it as a challenge to try the whole Orange longlist I wouldnt have made it past page 70, the fact I did probably made me all the more hostile to it though, ha.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: Likable is fine. Dislikable is fine. Boring is boring. Like you, I found myself thinking with both these two that if they would just do something, anything, perhaps I could generate some interest. I find it amazing that this novel made the Orange list when Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good (where a not-to-good marriage is used to set the stage for a fascinating look at half a century) did not.

  6. Aths Says:

    I like your take on this book! Especially your observation that Paul doesn’t like any change. It’s an undercurrent I felt throughout Paul’s narrative, but I wasn’t quite able to pinpoint it articulately. I did however like this book better that you did, though I didn’t like either character much. I found I understood Cora better than Paul, but that could possibly be because I couldn’t fathom how a father could just move himself miles away from his home, stay with his other daughter instead of trying to drive some sense into her, and still think of escaping when he’s in the airport. Grief, right! (Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Cora’s behavior is any more justified.)

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Aths: Thanks for the comment — I agree that there was more to Cora than there was to Paul. I think by the time the book got to her I was annoyed enough that that did not help very much. I do understand why other readers would have a more positive response than I did.

  8. BuriedInPrint Says:

    I really appreciate your response to this one and I understand why you didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. (It was rather late in my Orange Prize reading project, but I’m glad that I got to it in the final quarter!)

    It’s a story that, as you’ve said, has been told many times (though how funny that there are so many parallels with the Anne Enright that you’ve mentioned), but I found it engaging and compelling, albeit quietly so.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BIP: I can also understand why some readers would like it more than I did, which I tried to indicate in my review. I suspect that more female readers will find value in it than I did — as some comments have indicated, Cora is a much stronger character than Paul (so are his wife and daughter for that matter — if you identify with them, his haplessness probably becomes less annoying).

    And I must say that when I moved on to the Enright, the early parts felt like it was Part Three of The London Train, only moved to Ireland. Enright does take her novel to different territory in the last half, however.

  10. emilyluxor Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I read this review with interest (I’m new to your blog and I’ve been working my way slowly through the posts) as I am a fan of Tessa Hadley’s short stories, but I haven’t read this novel yet. I’m not even sure if she’s written other novels. She seems to me pretty much in command of short stories and their form. The complaint against London train for its passive characters and nothing really happening – I smiled when I read that because it’s so typical of Tessa Hadley’s short stories–‘passive’ souls who ‘do nothing’ but somehow end up changed at the end of the story due to some outside force, event or inner transformation. Of course, these characters are not passive (I’m thinking Thomas in ‘Mother’s son’ or his mother, for that matter) who had and are still having turbulent emotional lives and are living out the consequences of those– this subject matter is terrifically handled in the short story form but perhaps this kind of reflection or exposition is just not appropriate for a novel form where more ‘action’ is required? The gestures in Tessa Hadley’s stories are small, but deeply felt within the confined form of a short story but I can see in a novel, they might be scant, faint or diluted.
    I’m not a literary critic, but I love short stories and I can sometimes see how their content doesn’t always travel well into novels.

    Just my opinion though.

    Thanks

    Emily

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Emily: Welcome. And my reviews are only my opinions, so yours are certainly most welcome.

    I know Hadley (although not well) through her short stories also and I think you have captured a description of her strength in that form — the characters are not so much passive as forced to be reactive to what is happening around them. (Alice Munro has pretty much made an outstanding career out of that :-). ) And I think that was part of the problem that I had with this novel (as you anticipate). I needed some kind of at least inner strength to maintain my interest.

    And if you are working your way through the archives here, please keep posting your thoughts. It is valuable not just to me but to many of the visitors here to have some older posts brought back to the top of the list — it is more than worthwhile to revisit what one’s thoughts about a book are some months (or even years) down the road. Some novels that were only not-so-good on the original reading get better with time; some that were originally quite good tend to fade.

  12. Trevor Says:

    I second Kevins’ request to bring some of his old reviews to the top, emily. I bought this book the day (or maybe the day before) Kevin posted this review, but Kevin’s review made me put off reading it for a while. A fan of Hadley’s stories, I still planned to read it but had forgotten about it, so thanks!

    Now that you have essentially read the longlist, Kevin, if London Train had been part of this longlist, where would you rank it?

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: On the basis of those on the longlist, somewhere in the murky middle. On the basis of those books available, not a contender.

  14. Alison Says:

    I just finished The London Train last night and it was a perplexing experience. Perplexing because I had bought the book after hearing a radio interview with hadley and thought (given the comparisons to Alice Munro’s work) that I would really like it. It was a curious read, there were parts I found quite compelling. As you mention, Kevin, her observations and descriptions are terrific, but I founf myself able to put the book down and not not think about it for days on end. Then I would pick it up and enjoy the writing, but still not feel dragged into the story or characters, and yet I didn’t want to simply give up and leave it unread. When I finally finished it last night I felt disappointed by the symmetry of the two stories, I felt she was forcing a structure that drew attention from her characters and also made the story implausible at moments (Cora at the end).

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Alison: I’ve read a few Hadley short stories (although not a collection) and do think her talents are better suited to that form — although comparisons with Alice Munro are perhaps a bit of a stretch. I had much the same reaction as you when I read the novel. The experience was just fine, but it was easy to put the book down. And while I remember the general thrust of the novel, I had to reread the review to remind just what some of the details were.

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