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.