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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Book Review: The London Train by Tessa Hadley

The London Train is split into two sections. The first half concentrates on Paul who has just lost his mother and travels to London from Cardiff in search of his missing eldest daughter, Pia. As soon as he finds her he realises why she's lost contact - she's pregnant. Sleeping on her sofa, Paul lingers in London when he should really be going home to his family. The second half of the novel focuses on Cora, a woman who moved from London back to her childhood home in Cardiff after the breakdown of her marriage. What forces her back to London once again is a call to say that her husband has disappeared.

I'll admit I was underwhelmed by the first half of this book. Paul is not the most likeable of characters - he's a selfish man who disappears off to London and leaves his two young children and his wife without a clue about his whereabouts. His thirst for a different life to the one he's found himself living is an understandable one and his journey is well-written but I couldn't bring myself to like him until the final pages of his story. Conversely, there were things that attracted me straight away about Cora. Working as a librarian, trying to carve out a life after being someone else for twelve years, she comes across as a woman very much living in the present and avoiding thought of the future. Her past is explored as and when it becomes pertinent and this slyly slow reveal is one of the things I most enjoyed about the book. Aside from the deliberate interweaving of the two stories, there are also deliberate touches that draw parallels between Paul and Cora, notably the death of their mothers which indirectly kick-start their stories. Paul would not have gone in search of his daughter if his mother hadn't died; Cora would not have inherited a house and moved back to it had her mother not died.

This is an atmospheric book with some vivid descriptions. A few lines about the death of Cora's mother produced a lasting effect on me, for instance, and there is a minor character (Bar, an old flame of Cora's husband) who is so unique that the novel is worth reading just for the few pages about her. My favourite passage came towards the end of the book when Cora contemplates the point of memories:

"Once, Cora had believed that living built a cumulative bank of memories, thickening and deepening as time went 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." (p312)

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