The London Train by Tessa Hadley

Thursday, May 26, 2011


The London Train
Without asking, he put on the news on the television in her bare white sitting room, stood watching it while swallowing his gin, swishing the ice cubes round in his glass, grunting ironically at something political, which of course he would know all about from the inside. Was she supposed to stand around waiting in her own house, while he caught up on the latest scandal? 

Even before Tessa Hadley's The London Train got on to the Orange Prize longlist, I told Trish of TLC Book Tours that I simply had to read it. And as I sat here waiting for my copy, I found that made it to the longlist and even though I hadn't yet read it, was hoping to see it on the shortlist as well. That didn't happen, but I was still glad to finally start reading this very literary book last week.

The London Train is actually two short stories in one book. Or as is the trend now with short stories - two seemingly unconnected stories which are irrevocably connected. Getting into this book, I wasn't aware that there were two distinct stories. When I did know of it, I would have been a tad disappointed had they not been linked. We start off reading about our first protagonist - Paul, and the trip he makes to Birmingham, where his mother has just passed away at an assisted living facility. He is clearly unhinged by her death, even though it was probably unsurprising. The next day, he gets a call from his first wife who tells him that their 20-year old daughter, Pia is missing. When he finally finds Pia in London, he finds her staying in the most unexpected environment - pregnant with a Polish lover who was several years elder to her in a cramped untidy apartment that belonged to the Polish guy's sister. He is completely entranced by what he sees that he moves in with them.

In the other story, Cora separates from her husband, Robert, a civil servant who is facing an inquiry at work. She also leaves her career and moves back to Wales, where she chooses to work in a library. Robert and his sister, Frankie, who is also Cora's best friend want her to reconsider, to return back to Robert, but Cora has decided - there is no other lover, she just wants her solitude. The guarded manner in which she holds herself, not letting a single weak emotion betray her shows that she is hiding something, but it isn't until a third of the story in that we really find out. 

The London Train is a very literary work - one of the best I've read in that category. It took me a while to realize that this is not a book to be rushed. Rather, each word, sentence and phrase has to be savored. There is really very little that happens in this book. If I had to summarize the stories, I probably won't need more than a few sentences to tell you what happens from the first to the last page. But none of that would make much sense without actually living the novel. The feelings of despair, loneliness, anxiety, and confusion that the characters feel literally jump out of the page. I ended up feeling the same as the characters as I was reading the book. Paul was clearly very unlikeable. He did have some good attributes, but his annoying characteristics were more dominant. Rather than bring Pia home or leave her free to do as she wished, as any self-respecting father would do, Paul gets enchanted with her decision and wants to live life in the unsafe lane. Maybe that's his mid-life crisis. Besides, even with a supporting wife and two wonderful kids at home, and the recent death of his mother haunting him, he was disillusioned with his life - enough to let go of himself and allow circumstances to take over.

Cora, on the other hand, is too guarded. After her parents' deaths, she revamps their home intending to sell it, but eventually moving into it. The care she puts into maintaining the house's facade and the worry that festers in her mind about anything getting disturbed pretty much mimics the state of her mind. She puts the same energy into masking herself, so much so that she is not able to connect with her best friend at all. For the first many pages, the reader gets the impression that Cora's husband, Robert is just too predictable, too formulaic a person for Cora to handle and so she leaves him. Which is partly true. I found it interesting how the rest of the story tumbled out. I got the sensation that the author was probably teasing the reader, hinting that appearances are deceptive.

The stories are clearly only about Paul and Cora. As with most literary novels, the book left me wondering about the arcs of some of the other characters. As opposed to general fiction, where all characters are usually accounted for by the last page, literary fiction such as this stress more on the mystery and continuity of life. Paul and Cora are clearly very flawed human beings. And reading from the perspective of such characters makes for an interesting experience. Most of the narration happens from Paul's and Cora's perspectives. Though sometimes we get a hint of what the others are thinking, to round up the picture. I won't spill out any details of the time when their stories intersect, but I did feel that that event had more of a bearing on Cora's life than on Paul's. I see something of this sort in many of the books I read - the woman gets even more strongly impacted than the man. You could also see that while Cora tries to set her life in order, Paul tries to upset the status quo. I do think married couples need their own moments of privacy often, but I found it disappointing that Paul found it convenient to just disappear for weeks.

The London Train is however not without its demerits. While the author's writing made the characters' feelings very personal to me, I found it very detached as well. The hyphenated form of conversation was distracting (- You're joking, Paul said. - Your dad's crazy, he's really crazy.). For a book of this type, I would never suggest the double-quotes as a suitable alternative, because that might lend it a sentiment of triviality - more focus will end up being stressed on the conversations themselves as opposed to what the conversations were meant to evoke in the characters and the reader. I do feel that's a fine and necessary line. But I would have preferred a better way of printing those conversations - sometimes I just wasn't sure if it was a conversation or not. Maybe it doesn't matter - the whole stories were probably meant to happen in my head.

I am deliberately not rating the book just yet (although I no longer do that on my blog). Halfway through this book, I felt it was a mixed bag for me, but I've been thinking of the book ever since. Which usually means it's pretty thought-provoking. Besides, I absolutely love the title of the book - mainly because once I realized where it came from, it felt smart, succinct and with a world of secrets in that title. This is not a preachy kind of book, in the sense that there are no messages or lessons that you could garner out of it. But it left me thinking about the characters, wondering about their fallibility and their unique responses. How their actions are not just a result of their desires and impulses but also some specific triggers in their lives that make them want to escape. And how most importantly, an action can be judged right or wrong in isolation, but it's not that simple when looked at in context.

I received this book for free from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.


23 comments:

Misha said...

I could not control myself any longer , so I ordered this book after reading just half your review :D Out of all the books on the Orange Prize longlist, The London Train intrigued me the most.
I agree that a hyphenated form of conversation is distracting and makes you feel detached; I think I should lessen my excitement for the book a little so that I don't end up being disappointed.

hcmurdoch said...

Isn't that interesting when you don't think you loved a book, but it stays with you for some reason and you keep thinking about it. What a bonus

Athira / Aths said...

I think you will still like it. It's just distracting, but doesn't take the engagement with the novel away. Besides, I got used to it after a while, and settled into this mode of conversation easily. I'm excited that you bought the book. Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

Athira / Aths said...

That has happened to me so often! In both directions - when I like a book first and then it starts bothering me; and when I don't like it much and then start appreciating it! It's exciting that the impact of a book transcends the reading time.

Carrie Dunham-LaGree said...

I'm really 

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I'm really looking forward to this one! I'm slowly working my way through the longlist, and this one is one I'm most excited about.

Athira / Aths said...

 I've been following your Orange reading for a while and love your reviews of those books. Can't wait to hear what you think of this one.

Nadia said...

Aths, I'm on the TLC tour for this one, too! I also was excited to see it on the list and picked it right away. From your reading your review of it I'm glad I picked it, because it sounds like its definitely going to be a thought-provoking read - which I'm really looking forward to (I'm in need of a really good book!). Great post!

caribousmom said...

Love this review...I agree, very literary. I also found myself feeling detached (and you're right, as I read, I began to feel like the characters felt, which in this case was not a good thing!). For me, however, the book fell mostly flat. I've read a fair amount of literary fiction, and it doesn't have to be so slow moving. I found Cora's story the stronger of the two (maybe because I am a woman?), and Paul to be a little superficial and annoying. BUT, I also agree, this is a thoughtful book - might make a good discussion book....

Athira / Aths said...

Yay, Nadia! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on this one. It was certainly a book that I enjoyed.

Athira / Aths said...

I've been wondering too about why I enjoyed reading about Cora more than about Paul. Is it the gender thing? Would I appreciate Paul's story better if Paul was a woman?

Caribousmom said...

I don't know if it is fully a gender thing - although I suspect that is part of it. The reason I don't think it is the whole answer is that there have been male characters in novels who I absolutely love. For some reason, Paul's characters just felt flat to me on many levels - and where he shows personality, it is the negative aspects of who he is that resonate the loudest.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

It's tricky to rate a book like this - on the one hand there are parts you didn't like, but on the other hand the book had an impact and has stuck with you.  I'd be interested to see how you describe/recommend this book a month from now.

Thanks for being on the tour and for such a thoughtful review.

Lena said...

Great review. Sometimes I will let a book sit and resonate with me until I feel a rating speak to me. Sometimes initial reactions may not be my final thoughts on a book. So I admire that you didn't force a rating. I like the title, but I don't much care for the cover. But it does sound interesting.

Meg @ write meg! said...

While I enjoyed this book immensely, I agree that there was a curious detachment between me as a reader and both Paul and Cora. I wanted... emotional connection. I wanted the story to resonate. Though I found it exceptionally well-written and engrossing, it didn't impact me the way I would have liked -- and that's what kept it from sailing to a "super awesome read" for me.

Still, a possible Indie Lit Awards contender this year? :)

Athira / Aths said...

I've been thinking the same thing - that I should revisit a month or so later. Already, I'm finding that some aspects no longer appeal so much to me, while certain other events are feeling all the more vivid. It's still a mixed bag.

Athira / Aths said...

I agree! Earlier, I used to try to rate right away, and a week later, I find that I longer agree with it. That's the main reason I stopped rating on my blog - I began to feel too capricious. Two weeks later, I feel this is a 4-star book. Pretty good but could have been better.

Athira / Aths said...

Yes! I've already been thinking this is worth a nomination. If nothing, this has made us really think and pull us in.

My Bookshelf said...

It appeared promising but after reading your thought on it, I think it is not for me.  I enjoyed your remarks and insight though.

Young1 said...

Great review and looking forward to finding out your rating!

Young1 said...

Cannot wait to read this :D

Athira / Aths said...

Awww.. I was hoping to convince you to pick it up. :) No problem. I'm glad my review was helpful in making your decision!

Athira / Aths said...

I eventually rated in 4 stars. I might have given it a little more if it was paced a little faster. But it was still a great read!