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.