The London Train, by Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Cape RRP£12.99, 324 pages
Tessa Hadley’s darkly elegant new novel is arranged as a diptych, with the two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.
The first panel of the diptych concerns Paul, who has a “half-realised writing career” and a predilection for adultery; his wife Elise restores furniture and, often enough, her marriage. In the second, Cora, a teacher at a further education college, finds refuge in working for a library; her husband Robert is a senior civil servant. Social anxiety permeates the book: Paul worries about his working-class roots as opposed to the more privileged origins of his wife; Cora, meanwhile, feels in awe of her older husband’s Sloaney, supposedly superior, status.
These lives are largely untroubled by greater currents. And yet cataclysms occur, as Paul’s eldest daughter vanishes, only to reappear, pregnant, in a tower block with a druggy Polish boyfriend; Cora, painfully childless, abandons her husband. The instability of the comfort of these bourgeois lives is symbolised neatly by a farmer’s ruthless felling of a row of aspens that borders Paul’s garden. The London train of the title brings the two halves together, causing ripples and echoes that play off each other: both Cora and Paul’s lives are uprooted, physically and emotionally; both suffer loss, heartache and lust, and find temporary stability in an unexpected place.
Everybody in this novel is in transit. The characters are uneasy participants in the game of life, unsure of themselves and their position in it. Paul, in a paradox that is typical of Hadley, leaves his wife and young daughters to go on a quest to rescue his eldest. The abandoned becomes the abandoner. He moves into her council flat, sleeping on the sofa, acting as guard against potential dangers; he hardly ever phones his wife, who frets at home. His motives are not entirely altruistic: there is a girl on the scene (the druggy boyfriend’s sister) whom he finds attractive. We get the sense that just as Paul’s writing career is “half-realised”, so is his life – a series of crass compromises and foolish mistakes.
Also treading the liminal is Cora. She knows “how you could deceive yourself, falling into one of those pockets of stasis, where you could not see change building up behind”. Having convinced herself that all she wanted to do in life was to marry her husband, she finds herself in disgust at the work he has to do (which concerns immigration). When an explosion occurs at a centre, for which Robert is held responsible, she flees. And this flight, in turn, causes Robert to question his values and to embark upon his own journey.
Hadley writes with grace and intensity, moving from careful, beautiful delineation of character and place (whether the hideous confines of a King’s Cross estate, or the decaying gloom of an artist’s house) to moments of haunting power. She is brilliant, too, at offering us different perspectives, as when Cora, meeting Robert in London, feels that she is dressed with metropolitan elan; Robert, however, sees in her the dowdiness of the provinces. Can these people ever meet, we think. Can human communication ever be anything but a vague approximation of truth?
Everything seems to be breaking apart. Relationships here are tested to their extremes: but they fold back into their place as Hadley enforces the rightness and safety of family. As in life, though, it isn’t quite so simple. The whole is tinged with an elegiac sense of ambiguity, so that as we leave a husband and wife walking in the twilight of a garden, or facing each other in a dusty flat after a long separation, we know that they might still be dragged apart. But what Hadley has done is open a Pandora’s box: all the troubles of the world fall upon these people – and at the end there still remains hope.
Philip Womack is author of ‘The Liberators’ (Bloomsbury)