Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 325pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The London Train, By Tessa Hadley

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power