The London Train, by Tessa Hadley

March 22, 2012 at 6:37 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

  A chance meeting on a train alters the lives of two people.

But does it really?

When we first meet Paul, a writer, he is on his way to London from his home in Wales. The purpose of his journey is to claim the body of his mother Evelyn, who has just died. Evelyn had been in declining health for some time; nevertheless, her death comes as a profound shock to Paul, pitching him into a deep well of melancholy:

He wished he could remember better those passages in The Aeneid where Anchises in the Underworld explains to his son how the dead are gradually cleansed in the afterlife of all the thick filth and encrusting shadows that have accumulated through their mortal involvement, their living; when after aeons they are restored to pure spirit, they long, they eagerly aspire, to return to life and the world and live again.

(I’m not sure how much of that is Virgil and how much Tessa Hadley, but all of it struck me as astonishingly beautiful.)

Paul has been thrown back to his knowledge of the classics as he searches for a mode of expression that would fully convey the depth of his grief. Meanwhile, he must return to Wales, and to his family: his sympathetic wife Elise and his two young daughters. Paul also has an older daughter from a previous marriage. Her name is Pia, and she becomes the center of the next drama to consume Paul’s life.

And after the crisis with Pia, there’s yet another drama – but I get ahead of myself….

In fact, to say more about the plot, at this point, would be to give too much away. So I’ll just say that I became quite absorbed in the lives of these characters, none of them especially extraordinary people but interesting nonetheless, as Tessa Hadley describes their varying, unpredictable, and erratic journeys through life. I was in the mood for a novel like this when I plucked it from the new book shelf at the library. I knew little about this particular book, though I’d heard good things about the author.

The London Train is a bifurcated work, in that at the half way point, Hadley begins a whole new narrative, featuring characters we have not heretofore encountered. I admit that at first I felt frustrated by this, as I was by then thoroughly immersed in the story of Paul and his family. I do feel that the second part is not quite as compelling as the first, but I had in general such a good feeling about the novel that I kept going, and in the end felt rewarded at having done so.

The reviewer in The Independent says the following: “Tessa Hadley is an understated writer whose concentration on the details of everyday life belies a breathtaking acuity and articulateness.” I agree. (And I would warmly recommend this title for book discussion groups.)

Tessa Hadley


  1. Nan said,

    This sounds very interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a ‘bifurcated’ novel before. Did the two parts connect at all? If they don’t would the book be considered two novellas??

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Hi, Nan,

      Yes, the two parts most definitely do connect!

  2. Nan said,

    I’m trying to think if I’ve ever read anything like that. Have you?

  3. Thomas at My Porch said,

    I would read this one just for the cover. Such an interesting woodcut.

  4. Barb Monson. said,

    Actually I liked the second narrative better than the first. And I was struck by the flawless changeover to a female narrator from Paul. Paul is a bit of a arrogant male – still the twist in story 1 is an interesting one.

    I’m off to read her other novels. This one was wonderful!

    Here is one of the longest sentences I’ve read lately from p. 209:

    Determinedly, she was feeding herself properly, cooking from her recipe books with fresh ingredients, although sometimes, sitting to eat alone at the place set with her heavy silver knives and forks (a wedding present to her grandmother, on her mother’s side), on the soft old wood of the dining table in the conservatory, with the doors open to the evening light in the garden, she could hardly finish what was on her plate and had to scrape into the bin what she had so scrupuously prepared.

    Hurray I’ve found another excellent writer. thanks.

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