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.
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Jack the Ripper: Scientist who claims to have identified notorious killer has 'made serious DNA error'
- 2 Banksy arrest hoax: Internet duped by fake online report claiming artist's identity has been revealed
- 3 Drink alcohol and eat meat to improve male fertility - but cut down on coffee, studies suggest
- 4 Former East 17 frontman Brian Harvey turns up at Downing Street and 'demands to speak to Prime Minister'
- 5 The inventor of the Facebook 'like' button says he never made a 'dislike' button because he feared the 'unfortunate consequences'
Doctor Who, Flatline - review: Clara isn’t half bad as the Time Lord
Downton Abbey review series 5, episode 5: Period drama falls disappointingly flat
Star Wars memorabilia called a 'bit of plastic' on Antiques Roadshow by Fiona Bruce valued at £50,000
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt is intriguing as unsympathetic war hero
Star Wars Episode 7 has almost finished filming
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'
Lord Freud: Tory welfare minister apologises after saying disabled people are 'not worth’ the minimum wage
Lord Freud hangs on as MPs of all parties 'call for his head' over disability comments