The London Train by Tessa Hadley

There is a touch of Brief Encounter about The London Train, Tessa Hadley’s 2011 novel featuring two parallel narratives that ultimately come together and connect. In one sense, this wonderfully subtle book can be viewed as an exploration of the fault lines and emotional disconnects in two seemingly stable marriages. Moreover, the story also highlights how these fissures can be exposed by random events, from the sudden disappearance of a daughter to a chance encounter on a train.

Structurally, the book is divided into two sections that initially appear to be separate novellas: The London Train and Only Children. However, by the time the reader reaches the midpoint of the second section, the connection between these beautifully constructed narratives becomes clear.

The first story revolves around Paul, a middle-aged writer and reviewer who lives in Wales with his second wife, Elise, a successful restorer of antiques, and their two young children, Becky and Joni. From an early stage, Hadley hints at an air of restlessness or lack of fulfilment surrounding Paul. Having recently lost his mother, Paul is haunted by dreams of his childhood, gnawing away at the guilt he feels over his infrequent visits before her death. While Elise and the girls provide Paul with a comfortable, loving home environment, he occasionally wishes that his life were more spontaneous and free-spirited – a little like that of his bohemian friend Gerald, a part-time University tutor, who seems to get by on a combination of humous, Scotch eggs and weed. Moreover, an ongoing dispute with his neighbour – the deliberatively obstructive farmer Willis – is a further source of agitation for Paul and Elise.

The story really gets going when Paul’s eldest daughter – nineteen-year-old Pia, from his earlier marriage to Annelies – goes missing from her London home. When Paul tracks Pia down, he discovers she is pregnant and living with the child’s father, a Polish man named Marek, in a squalid flat near King’s Cross. At first, it is unclear whether Marek is a conman, an entrepreneur, or a fantasist, with his dreams of setting up an import-export business for Polish delicatessen goods. Nevertheless, there is something magnetic about this quietly authoritative man and his sister, the equally compelling Anna. Consequently, Paul finds himself getting drawn into their world – to the point where he temporarily leaves Elise after a furious row to camp out with Pia and Marek in their claustrophobic flat.

As soon as Marek and Anna were in the flat, Paul saw that Anna was a force just as her brother was, and that Pia had been drawn to both of them, not just the man. Both moved with quick, contemptuous energy, crowding the place; Paul recognised that they were powerful, even if he wasn’t sure he liked them, and couldn’t understand yet what their link was to his daughter, or whether it was safe for her. (pp. 67–68).

In essence, the combination of tensions Paul is experiencing – his worries over the stability of Pia’s future with Marek; the guilt he feels about neglecting his mother; the ongoing row with Willis; and his underlying sense of restlessness – conspire to expose the fault lines in his relationship with Elise. Several differences between the couple rise to the surface, from the contrasts in their family backgrounds and social class to their current values and attitudes to life, prompting a kind of mid-life crisis for Paul as he starts to feel the pull of Anna.

Hadley’s second story focuses on thirty-something Cora, who has recently left her older husband, Robert, a rather stuffy and emotionally detached Civil Servant, high up in the Home Office. Cora is now living in Cardiff, having lovingly renovated her parents’ house following their deaths; and while her new role as a librarian is not particularly demanding, she enjoys the lack of stress after several years as an English teacher.

At heart, Cora keeps her feelings under wraps, finding it hard to confide in her closest friend, Frankie, who also happens to be Robert’s sister. While Robert tries to persuade Cora to return to London, she is content to remain in Wales, enjoying her freedom and a new-found air of self-possession. As far as Cora sees things, Robert appears to view their marriage as a kind of ‘contract or a piece of legislation’, not a living, breathing relationship driven by deep emotions.

Nothing could shake his [Robert’s] hierarchy of importance, where work was a fixed outer form, inside which personal things must find their place. Once, she had gloried in cutting herself to the right shape to fit it. (p. 172).

As you’ve probably guessed by now, these two stories come together when Paul and Cora meet by chance on the Cardiff-to-London train. An attraction gradually develops as they chat during the journey, culminating in an arrangement to meet again the next time Cora is in Cardiff. Before long, the pair are embroiled in a passionate affair, which feels especially liberating for Cora, given the sense of loneliness surrounding her marriage to Robert.  

Their relations were asymmetrical. She was the completed thing he wanted, and had got – he had seen her whole that very first time on the train, her strong particular stamp of personality written for him to read, clear as a hieroglyph; whereas she was absorbed in his life as it streamed forward, lost in him, not able to know everything he was. She couldn’t have imagined, in her old self, the pleasure to be had in such abandonment (p. 264)

I think I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot, save to say that Hadley plays with the timings of various events, moving smoothly from one timeline to another to weave her stories together.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is Hadley’s ability to create a strong connection between the reader and her central characters, especially Cora, whose inner life is portrayed with just the right degree of intimacy. In both stories, we see how seemingly stable marriages can be eroded over the years by small failings and disappointments, highlighting these characters’ relatable flaws and shortcomings.

Hadley also successfully draws out various parallels and connections between the two stories without the underlying themes ever feeling overworked. For instance, both Cora and Paul are separated from their respective partners – possibly temporarily or maybe more permanently. Both are grieving a parent with no siblings to share their grief or sense of loss. Both are at pivotal points in their lives when their choices are likely to have significant ramifications for themselves and others.

Running alongside the central theme of the fragility of marital relationships are various related areas, including coping with a family bereavement, female desire and self-possession, and the balance between freedom and domestic responsibility. There’s also a discernible undercurrent of unease about key social and political issues, ranging from the damaging effects of climate change to the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, especially those earmarked for deportation. In his Home Office role, Robert is under investigation for a major fire at an immigration removal centre, with a formal inquiry due to reach a critical point. Once again, Hadley demonstrates subtlety in her treatment of these topics, conveying her perspective in a thoughtful and compelling way.

Robert’s fire, however, had been at one of the new purpose-built centres: brick buildings on brownfield sites, as blandly featureless from the outside as mail-order depots or units on an industrial estate. […] this modern apparatus for punishment stood lightly and provisionally in the landscape, like so many husks, or ugly litter. The appearance of the buildings, Cora thought, was part of the pretence that what was processed inside them was nothing so awful or contaminating as flesh and blood. The buildings made possible the dry husks of language in the reports that Robert read, and wrote. (p. 191).

In summary then, The London Train is an exquisitely written novel on the messy business of middle-class life and the vulnerability of seemingly stable relationships. Yet, by the end of this richly textured book, there is a sense of optimism for the future, the possibility of reconnections, new beginnings, and a deeper understanding as the dust settles on these characters’ lives. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction with a focus on interiority.

38 thoughts on “The London Train by Tessa Hadley

  1. whisperinggums

    Your concluding sentence tells me this is one I’d like. Years ago I read a short story by her and I really liked it … quiet, beautifully observed character-driven story focused on the interior!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think she’s one of the most insightful observers of relationships and the small dramas of day-to-day life – certainly amongst the contemporary writers I’ve been reading in recent years. The Past (from 2015) is also well worth considering as it’s in broadly similar vein.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s good to hear that you liked Late in that Day, Susan – I’ll add it to my wishlist. You might well enjoy this one too, especially given the two interconnecting stories…I think you’re a fan of dual narratives, IIRC?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely worth considering for readers who like literary fiction with a focus on interior lives. I was lucky to find a nice copy of this hardback with its beautiful cover design!

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, as always Jacqui, and this sounds like a really brilliantly put together book. I’m always particularly impressed when an author can weave together so many strands and connect what seem to be disparate narratives, and Hadley seems to have drawn in a wide range of themes too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, there’s a lot going on (maybe a little too much in the first story, but that’s a minor quibble in the broad scheme of things). I love the way Hadley moves between different timelines without losing the reader. It’s very neatly done, plus it adds a different perspective to certain aspects of the stories, Cora’s in particular!

      Reply
  3. jenniferbeworr

    There were so many helpful reminders around the plot. It has been a while since I read this novel. In reading this review, I can’t help but think I must read it again someday. She does well to work in strong, individual Polish characters. They’re ubiquitous in London and yet little written about in a substantive way so far as I’m aware. Well done, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad my review acted as a bit of a memory jogger, that’s lovely to hear. Yes, Marek and Anna are very striking, aren’t they? There must be the potential for a fascinating short story featuring those two if Hadley ever feels the urge to develop them further!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really like the ending, as it feels satisfying enough without resorting to major drama or tying up every loose end. She’s very subtle like that. I suspect other (less experienced?) writers might be tempted to go for something more dramatic, but it’s to Hadley’s credit that she holds back. Plus there’s the possibility of brighter times ahead, especially for my favourite character in the book!

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    This sounds excellent, and I am already intruiged by how the two narratives come together. I haven’t read Hadley yet, but have heard good things in the past. I also think that cover is gorgeous, very enticing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really like her, Ali. She writes about families and relationships so well without tipping into melodrama. One of my Twitter friends described her latest novel, ‘Free Love’ (which I’ve yet to read), as being a little reminiscent of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, which is high praise indeed.

      Hadley seems to be particularly interested in what happens when the normal routine of life is interrupted in some way, maybe by a chance encounter or a new experience – those seemingly small decisions we make that end up taking our lives in different directions for a while. I’ve noticed it in some of her short stories too (e.g., the ‘Bad Dreams’ collection, which I read earlier this year). And the writing is beautiful, very much your kind of style.

      It’s such a pretty edition, isn’t it? I couldn’t resist the hardback when I saw the cover design online!

      Reply
  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Some time ago I read Hadley’s Clever Girl, which left me a bit cold. It also had the unfortunate effect of making me avoid her work, despite my love of character driven fiction. I’ve been thinking of trying Hadley again, however, particularly after reading and enjoying one of her recent short stories in The New Yorker (“After the Funeral”). London Train sounds like it might be just the thing for my Hadley experiment! Thanks for the excellent review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A pleasure! Funnily enough, you’re not alone in finding Clever Girl a bit of a disappointment, as a Tessa Hadley fan I was chatting to on Twitter yesterday said something similar. It certainly doesn’t sound like Hadley’s best…

      If you liked After the Funeral, you might want to take a look at Bad Dreams, her most recent collection of stories (from 2017, I think). I read it earlier this year and really liked it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s definitely worth trying, Peter. I also loved The Past, which I read last year – some readers consider it to be her best, so that could be another option for you?

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    What a beautiful book. How is it I haven’t yet read Tessa Hadley? I read an article that compared her with Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch, but she sounds more of our day, with characters living in squats. I will seek out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Interesting comparisons! I’ve only read one Iris Murdoch (her debut, Under the Net), so it’s hard for me to judge, but my sense is that Hadley is much more approachable than Murdoch. Still very much in the literary fiction arena, but less philosophical / intellectual than Murdoch, if that makes sense. I suspect she’s closer to Drabble, but again I haven’t read enough of the latter to say. You’d like Hadley, I think, particularly as she such a keen observer of relationships and family dynamics.

      Reply
  7. Liz Dexter

    Oh, this sounds amazing. I keep having her recommended to me and keep being told she’s the nearest thing you’ll find to Iris Murdoch these days – this book certainly sounds very Murdochian. I even transcribed an interview with her a few months ago, though I didn’t really fancy her latest novel. This is going on my wishlist!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Funnily enough, Gert was just saying she’d read an article comparing Hadley to Iris Murdoch, but I haven’t read enough of the latter to give a view. My sense is that she’s probably more approachable than Murdoch (maybe less philosophical / intellectual, if that makes sense?), but you’d be the best judge of how they compare once you’ve given Hadley a try. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think, should you decide to go for it…

      Reply
      1. Liz Dexter

        I need to find that article! Murdoch is a lot more approachable than people think, but I’ve got this one on my wishlist and will pick it up after Christmas/birthday if it’s not appeared!

        Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    The subtle novels are the ones that can be quietly amazing. I read a wonderful quiet novel recently and find it difficult sometimes to describe what makes them stand out, but perhaps it comes down to characters and the interactions among them, and how well that is conveyed by the author. It sounds like Marek, Anna, and Cora are very compelling characters in this book. Tessa Hadley is really a writer I should get to.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly – and it’s difficult to put into words without it sounding a bit cliched or dull (which it isn’t!). The tensions between Paul and Elise are particularly well conveyed, as are the scenes with Paul and Cora. I would definitely recommend that you give Hadley a try. Quite a few of her short stories are available to read at The New Yorker, so that might be a good place to start? https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/tessa-hadley/page/1

      Reply
  9. madamebibilophile

    I read this years ago – I think when it first came out – and remembered nothing about it but your review has definitely helped me recall it! I really rate Tessa Hadley, she’s so precise and insightful. You’ve definitely tempted me to a reread.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. I’m glad my post revived a few memories for you! I feel I’m quite late to Tessa Hadley, but she’s definitely someone I want to read more of in the future. Her latest one, Free Love, sounds particularly good.

      Reply
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