DH: The train trip from the environs of Cardiff to London takes roughly three hours. That’s too long for it to be a daily commute or a casual trip. Once in London, you’d stay very conscious of the time and the train schedule if you were making a return on the same day. And I imagine there would be a strong temptation to stay in London overnight.
This set-up reminded me of Brief Encounter, the classic early David Lean film based on a more stringent Noel Coward play. That would be a different railroad line between England and Scotland. In the film, a middle aged man and woman, both married with children, are reverse commuters from each other. But they have an accidental encounter in a transfer train station (it still exists) that leads to an affair. It’s brilliant how Coward takes a mechanistic structure: tracks, station, reverse commutes, a dismal refreshment counter, and distributes his characters along it in parallel chains of consequence.
Paul, the central character for about half of The London Train, reviews books. His wife also works at home restoring discarded Victorian furniture. Home is a gentile country place outside Cardiff. It reminded me of Bedford, N.Y…sort of horsey.
Paul has two families because he’s had two marriages. His ex-wife and his teenage daughter, Pia, live in London. His current wife, Elise, and his two younger daughters are the ones based in Cardiff.
Do parents take the credit when their children turn out wonderfully or do they just cross themselves and mutter “Thank God.”? Do they stop blaming themselves when, no matter what they try, their kid always seems to be in trouble? And is there something in the pattern of the parent’s lives that will be recapped by their children? Maybe it’s all the parallelism of those crossing and recrossing train tracks. The paths of the characters in The London Train also cross and recross. There’s one amazing scene where characters who are looking for each other end up at each others’ deserted residences.
Paul’s two beautiful Cardiff daughters by his second marriage are intelligent, curious and socially poised. Some children will be at ease with people and will be well-adjusted their whole lives.
But Pia, Paul’s older London daughter from his first marriage, seems always to need help. She’s socially awkward, plain, not very bright. She’s made a mess of her chance at a university education. A panicked call from his first wife that Pia has run away leads Paul to board the London train.
Pia has moved into a cramped council flat belonging to the sister of her Polish immigrant lover, a guy who seems to be about 20 years older than she is. She’s in an advanced state of pregnancy. I love how Tessa Hadley presents these socially poised adults. They’re the cream of the urban crop: well educated, well dressed, well spoken. They live in the nicest neighborhoods and have a knack for selecting just the right wine. But it can seem as if their skills are all on the surface. Paul moves in with brother, sister and Pia for awhile to help sort his daughter out. Paul’s remove into this offbeat arrangement should have flagged that Paul was more complex than I had supposed. There’s a wonderful line when he finally gets back to home base in Cardiff that he had been gone long enough for him to notice that some people’s hair has grown longer.
About two thirds of the way through The London Train, the novel is split, like you’d take a cleaver and split up an apple. We’re back on the London train with Cora, a new character, whose is separated from her prominent civil service husband. Up to this point, Paul and his widening circle of family and friends have been the focus of the story. But now Cora meets him and he’s an exotic stranger. It’s fascinating to see Cora wonder about Paul and what his family life is like when we’ve been on the inside and know all the domestic details from the past 132 pages.
Tessa Hadley’s characters are nothing, if not house proud. When Cora visits her deserted husband’s flat during a stay over in London, she re-arranges the chairs to match how they looked before they were separated. When she sleeps over, she finds she can’t use the marital bed, so she sleeps in the spare room. There she discovers that her husband has been sleeping in the spare room as well. The bed is barely made up. It’s a great image of the endurance of her marriage, to have Cora sleep in her unmade husband’s bed. To have them sleep serially in the same bed, even if they are not sleeping in it together.
How do you understand what Tessa Hadley has done in this complexly detailed novel, whose plot lines, like branch lines, lead to yet more stories? I’m a fan of the minor scene that tells you who the writer is. In The London Train, it’s Cora in a taxi, tracking down an ancient girlfriend of her husband’s. The taxi driver starts a conversation about his family, something about tensions between a daughter-in-law and other family members. It only takes a couple of lines but already you can sense Tessa Hadley warming up to tell you another absorbing tale about a family. The story is dropped. It’s just a taxi ride. But you sense that Tessa Hadley could have given you two hundred pages on the taxi driver’s family if she had wanted to. Because behind the stories that we’ve heard about, there are just other stories, and more stories still, just beyond our reach, like the stories of other passengers in a train car. Tessa Hadley’s The London Train releases in the U.S. in June from Harper Collins.