Double down

by emily

Tessa Hadley’s sneaky-good new novel, The London Train, pulls a double bait-and-switch.  Perhaps a nicer way of phrasing would be to say one’s readerly expectations are built up and then dismantled, and that this happens twice–once with startling suddenness, and once with slow, subtle ingenuity.

I went out to buy this novel because the week before I read it I came across two truly great short stories by Hadley, one in the current issue of Granta (on the F word–no, not that one) and one in the New Yorker.  The very doubleness of the stories alone would have made me take notice of Hadley (whose earlier novel “The Master Bedroom” I remember liking very much), but these stories were so good, and so different from one another, that I made a specific trip to my indie just to pick up The London Train.

The novel begins by telling the story of Paul, a London-area poetry critic in the middle of three crises: his oldest daughter’s unexpected pregnancy, his mother’s death, and a possibly faltering (second) marriage.  Paul finds his daughter Pia living with a Polish man and his sister, in a sketchy council flat, yeah check me out with the Brit lingo!, but his first vehemently bourgeois concerns fade away in a new and surprising appreciation for the unconventional way the trio lives.  Paul returns again and again to see Pia, who doesn’t particularly want to see him, and falls in with Marek, her older street-wise boyfriend.  An argument with his wife springs Paul from his comfortable suburban life into Pia’s crash-pad, where he lingers in a strange malaise, tugged beyond the boundaries of what is expected of him.  Vague threats–Marek’s not-quite-legal work, Pia’s shiftiness–surface and submerge.  Paul is a man in-between.  We don’t like him that much, but we want to know what happens to him, and his daughter.  And his marriage.

And then his story ends.

A new section of the novel begins, titled “Only Children.”  Now we are in Cora’s story, and we’ve moved forward several years.  Cora is a thirty-something librarian who is desperately unhappy in the wake of her disintegrated marriage to Robert, a government official.  She struggles to move on with a life that now seems empty because of what occurred after a chance meeting on the train between London and Cardiff years ago.  And now we begin to understand the connection between the two halves of the book…it was Paul whom Cora met on the train, Paul with whom she had an affair and fell deeply in love, Paul who went back to his wife and broke her heart.  In Paul’s section, there are only a few mentions of “a woman” he was once involved with–despite obvious pain from his wife, it seems that from both her and Paul’s perspective, this entanglement is in the past.

The key concept is perspective. Because we begin to understand that for Cora the affair with Paul, although ended several years before, is still alive and churning in her present-day life.  She longs for him; she is stricken when she comes across his voice on the radio or an essay he’s published.  She’s ended her marriage over this, but why now is she stuck–unable to move forward in life, unable to go back?  The metaphor of the London train is perfect: Cora shuttles back and forth between the present and the past, searching inside herself for meaning.

Two other strengths of the novel:

The importance of reading and books and ideas to the characters.  With his eccentric friend Gerald, Paul takes long walks and discusses topics like “the old model of human time as a succession of declining ages”; at a dinner party an argument erupts over history as progress or “the history of loss.”  Cora’s favorite novel is Henry James’ The Golden Bowl; her love of reading is what forms a connection between herself and Paul and what brings solace when she is alone.  These characters understand life through the written word; we do also.

The undercurrent of politics as a strange force in everyday life.  Cora’s husband, Robert, is implicated in the death of an Iranian writer at an immigration detention center; guilt and questions of who is responsible for the fire that claimed his life are part of what divide Cora and Robert–and what seem to be a potential way for them to come together.  Similarly, Paul has his own notions of society challenged by his surprising friendship with Marek.  These threads are subtle and intriguing; Hadley allows politics in the novel to remain unclarified, unfinished, utterly realistic in its shifting presence.

But as I said before, what knocks me out is The London Train’s gradual unfurling deepening, from a novel about these particular people, Paul and Cora, into a novel about how we perceive and experience life itself.  Hadley’s great success in this book is that her characters’ innermost thoughts are as important to the story as the outer events that form the plot of their lives.  What Hadley seems to be saying, most persuasively, is that life occurs on the private inside as much as it is lived among other people.  Life is at its most meaningful on an everyday commuter train, whether in a first meeting between lovers or while alone, staring out the window, in quiet revelation.

“Once, Cora had believed that living built a cumulative bank of memories, thickening and deepening as time when on, shoring you against emptiness.  She had used to treasure up relics from every phase of her life as it passed, as if they were holy.  Now that seemed to her a falsely consoling model of experience.  The present was always paramount, in a way that thrust you forward: empty, but also free.  Whatever stories you told over to yourself and others, you were in truth exposed and naked in the present, a prow cleaving new waters; your past was insubstantial behind, it fell away, it grew into desuetude, its forms grew obsolete.  The problem was, you were always still alive, until the end.  You had to do something.”