The London Train – Tessa Hadley

A while back I mused on not reading many modern books written by women and challenged myself to read at least 6 books this year by female writers.  This is the first book that falls into that category.  I received it for my birthday as recommended by the lovely booksellers at Waterstones near my husband’s office.

I’ve never read any of Tessa Hadley’s books before and I’m sure this won’t be the last.  In fact, I bought another of her books not long ago.  Her style of writing is a pleasure and easy to read.  The structure of this book is quite interesting.  It is two separate stories, given their own volumes, which are seemingly unrelated.  Then half way through the second story the reader is made aware of a connection between the main characters of each volume and we come to see how their lives are intertwined and experiences similar.  Both characters are only children, have recently lost their mothers, are heading into early middle age and struggling to come to terms with loss, loneliness, dissatisfaction with their lives and disappointments that can’t be rectified.  It is a book of emotions and characters, not plot.  Not much of earth shattering consequence happens, but undoubtedly the sentiments experienced by the characters will not be unfamiliar to some readers and if they are unfamiliar, Tessa Hadley describes their effects so beautifully you begin to understand how it must feel to stand at a crossroads in your life.

Paul’s story is first.  He is looking for his eldest daughter from his first marriage, who has seemingly gone missing after a row with her mother.  The process of searching for her gives him the opportunity of escaping his life for a while and he goes missing in his own way.  Paul is a deeply unpleasant character, I didn’t warm to him or feel sympathy for him, but I was interested in how he resolved the issues he faced.

Cora’s story is second and definitely more absorbing.  She has separated from her husband and moved into her parent’s old house.  She is trying to decide what the rest of her life will look like and reflects on a chance meeting with Paul and how their lives were linked for a time.  She is wrenched from her reverie when her husband disappears and she resolves to find him.

Neither Paul nor Cora particularly endear themselves to the reader, they both have flaws, but equally they don’t do anything so awful as to make it unbelievable.  As Pope said “To err is human” but sometimes we don’t like to be reminded of the choices people make in their lives that hurt others or show a disregard for their responsibilities, they are unpalatable, distasteful to us, antisocial and make us feel uncomfortable.  In The London Train Tessa Hadley’s understated writing makes us witness some of these issues with no emotional stone left unturned and it makes for uncomfortable reading sometimes.  In a way, that is its beauty; the characters are not particularly nice, the things they do make us squirm, but it is written so well that you can almost complete Pope’s quote and become divine enough to forgive them.  Whether any of the minor characters could do, is another matter.

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