It was a relief, to state the thing with such finality–as if she made it exist as an object to contemplate stony with clean lines and hard edges. With the loss of her parents behind her, and the loss of the babies she might have had ahead, she was withdrawn out of the past and future into this moment of herself, like a barren island, or a sealed box.
The London Train, Tessa HadleyThe London train
It took me two years to finish Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, not because it’s a terribly long and challenging book but because I had trouble caring very deeply about Paul and Cora, the characters at the novel’s heart. They aren’t unlikeable, necessarily, nor especially likeable either; they were simply not very interesting–I didn’t find myself wanting desperately enough to know what was going to happen next to keep going.
This isn’t to say it’s a badly written book; it’s not. Hadley’s writing is on a par with Alice Munro, William Trevor, or Ian McEwan; I picked this book up because I’ve loved her short stories, which are sharp and insightful and present characters who are realistically attractive and repulsive in just the right mix. Not only is it well-written, it’s interestingly structured: chronology is turned inside out, and the parallel narratives–first Paul, then Cora–plays with perspective and tone, giving two very distinct flavors to Paul and Cora’s affair.
Alas, the main characters turn out to be the least interesting characters in the novel. Cora’s husband Robert, an outwardly staid civil servant who has a history of walking away from commitments; Paul’s neighbors, Welsh farmers with designs on the land on the property line; Paul’s daughter’s boyfriend, a Polish immigrant squatting in London with his sister and engaged in a shady import/export scheme; even the nameless exiled Iranian poet who dies in an immigration holding center; all of these characters are infinitely more interesting than Paul and Cora, and would make for interesting stories and possibly even a novel in their own right. Had the novel been boiled down to a story, or perhaps two stories that mirror each other and hinge on the chance meeting that leads to the affair, the banality of Paul and Cora might not have been a problem; but their consciousnesses are simply too slender to hold up 200 pages.