‘Isn’t there something unsettling in the circularity in which some writers write because they want to be writers?’ – The London Train by Tessa Hadley

When Paul’s mother passes away and his eldest child drops out of college and pretty much disappears, his comfortable existence in the countryside is threatened with extinction. Until now, his middle-class, middle-ageing worries seem to have extended only as far as a vague feeling of not quite belonging: not seeing eye-to-eye with his wife Elise’s parochial business partner Ruth, for example; wishing he could spend more time with his bachelor friend Gerald; blaming his writer’s block on day-to-day distractions like his two young girls Becky and Joni; constant bickering with Farmer Willis next door.

Even his bond with nature – which is described in great detail in the first few chapters (he enjoys constitutionals through the fields with Gerald and seems glad Evelyn sought nighttime solace among the shrubs in the old people’s home’s garden before she died) – is cut, as symbolised by Willis chopping down a copse of aspen. This act of aggression gives Paul the jolt he needs to head to London to find Pia, the daughter from his first marriage to Annelies. But abandoning Elise to deal with the aftermath of the tree felling sets in motion a whole new runaway train of problems: it’s as if he’s deserting the second family in favour of the first. Once in the capital, Paul is irresistibly drawn to the oppressive heat and traffic and hemmed-in feeling; the action and adventure of a life he once lived. As recklessness replaces responsibility, it eventually falls to his daughter to remind him where his home really is.

In the second part of the novel, we discover this isn’t the first time Paul has taken a vacation from reality. Here, we see the true significance of the London train through a flashback to a chance encounter between Paul and Cora, already alluded to as a woman who lives next to the same park as Gerald. This shorter section (subtitled ‘Only Children’ to stereotype the two protagonists’ self-reliant self-centred behaviour) describes the brief back history of their relationship and its consequences, then explores events in Cora’s life, which follows a similar, albeit slightly more intriguing, track to Paul’s (dead parents, missing relatives, revisiting London).

To be honest, by this point, I didn’t particularly care. Nothing especially interesting happens in the novel; no real action drives the narrative; the language tends towards highfalutin; most of the themes have been explored by Hadley before (clandestine love affairs: debut Accidents In The Home; marriage and motherhood: 2003 novel Everything Will Be All Right; moving back to Cardiff from London: 2007’s The Master Bedroom; sleeping in other people’s beds: short story ‘A Mouthful Of Cut Glass’). The story largely follows the convoluted, complicated relationships of a bunch of people for whom we feel no empathy or even sympathy. Paul is a selfish, dispassionate character who doesn’t seem to feel anything for anybody, not even grieving over his mother’s death. While at first glance Cora appears independent and intelligent, she is soon stripped down to the same mould as Paul’s “other women”. (I’m no breast-beating feminist, but I was actually surprised by just how spineless and unappealing these women are, coming as they do from the pen of a female writer.) None of the characters has a spark of charm between them; their conversations are at best dull and domestic, at worst preachy and pretentious.

Talking of which, whether it’s conscious or not, Hadley gives herself a number of hat-tips: Paul reviews poetry for the London Review Of Books; Hadley has written for LRB. Hadley is the author of non-fiction work Henry James And The Imagination Of Pleasure; Cora’s favourite novel is Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, a study of marriage, adultery and the father-daughter relationship. Hadley even references her own short story ‘The Enemy’ (whose protagonist is Cora’s anagram Caro) by revisiting the Keats-inspired image of a brimming bowl. (There: “Your ethical life was a shallow bowl brimming impossibly; however dedicatedly you carried it about with you there were bound to be spills”; here: “The night ahead was a brimming dish she had to carry without spilling.”) And this from someone who said in The Guardian: “It’s probably healthier for a writer to be impressed by teachers and sailors and dancers and field-workers than by writers … Isn’t there something unsettling in the circularity in which some writers write because they want to be writers?” Sigh.

Any Cop?: The second section has potential but feels tacked on, almost as if it started life separately as a short story, and the novel doesn’t gel as a whole. The plot overall is pretty much non-existent and the egotistical characters don’t do themselves any favours by alienating the reader further with their faults and foibles.

Sarah-Clare Conlon

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