Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 325pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The London Train, By Tessa Hadley
Friday 21 January 2011
Tessa Hadley is an understated writer whose concentration on the details of everyday life belies a breathtaking acuity and articulateness. Her previous three novels and collection of stories were met with praise for her brush-strokes, if not always the bigger picture. In The London Train, she once again visualises the monochrome mundanity of ordinary existence in glorious Technicolor.
The novel is divided into two tales which, like train tracks on separate journeys, link, run together fleetingly, then divide. In the first, Paul lives in rural Wales with his second wife and their two daughters. He is shattered by the news that his daughter Pia from his first marriage has disappeared. In the second, Cora has left her marriage to move back to her late parents' house in Cardiff.
Hadley exhibits a talent for dissecting people, mannerisms and emotions in summations that are startlingly perceptive or drily devastating. Her writing is subtle but her gaze no less merciless. A librarian has a "long, dramatically ugly face"; a nursing-home owner shows "no sign that the taut, bright mask of... good humour, respectfully muted in the circumstances, ever gave way to any impulse of authentic feeling."
This lack of sentimentality means the reader finds out much more about the characters than if Hadley filed down the callouses. Paul's distance from Pia, for instance, is indicative of the chasm between them at the start of the story and of his inability to empathise. Cora, too, is exposed as a flawed protagonist, misjudging her husband Robert; misconstruing his respectful consideration as stultifying formality. Hadley's characters are completely plausible and fascinating for their fallibility.
Hadley captures shades of almost imperceptible grey that the reader only recognises after reading. On seeing Cora in her new environment, Robert "saw how completely she filled out this performance, as if she had lived like this for ever". Cora views her husband's quiet love and steady reliability impatiently: "Nothing could shake his hierarchy of importance, where work was a fixed outer form, inside which personal things must find their place." Hadley also voices evanescent feelings such as the dissipation of stress – "resentment dispersed like a fog lifting".
In Hadley's previous novel, The Master Bedroom, past and present collided, and the temporal element is evident here too, in a different guise. Dancing under the stories - unobtrusive, a reeling ribbon glimpsed in flashes - is a theme about the changes time wreaks. Paul's initially idealised feelings about his mother and relationships rot like apples on a bough; he starts off by seeing Pia as an unstimulating child, awkward and sullen, and this opinion also evolves. Changes of culture and social mores over time are invoked, as are those of identity, people, relationships, friendships. Everything is complex but ephemeral, shaped by time.
The omniscient narrator, able to read the thoughts of several characters simultaneously, is initially jarring, but in such capable hands even a technique which hampers many is no obstacle. Hadley shows, with dizzying aplomb, that the distinction between "literary" fiction and the best domestic fiction is spurious.
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