Tessa Hadley’s The London Train–Stiff Upper Life

Tessa Hadley’s fourth novel, 2011’s The London Train, is sneaky, and beyond satisfying.  (Congratulations, CapRadio Reads, on a swell second selection.)

First, a confession.  As is my wont with new fiction, I dove directly into the Kindle edition with no preliminaries—no research, no reviews.  A single recommendation from someone else works best for me.  I enjoy being surprised, and there’s no chance a splendid entrée will be spoiled by ill-matched hors d’oeuvres.  I scanned the “Contents” page: Eleven Chapters.  Okay—and, look: three sample Chapters from “Only Children;” must be another Hadley offering.  Well, if I have time…  I arrived at the end of Chapter XI, fork still poised, not nearly full enough.  Kindle says: Location 1994 of 4421.  Huh?  Well, I guess Tessa wants me to fill out the rest of Paul’s journey myself; fair enough.  Let’s try “Only Children”—hello, Cora…  

Guess what?  Same train, same back-and-forth, same passengers; parallel, complementary, and essential epiphanies.



In London Train proper, Paul—peripatetic poet and erstwhile literary academic—takes the occasion of his earnest mother’s timely death to survey the wreckage of his unrequited life: besides a rudderless career, two marriages; three daughters; and an ongoing border dispute with his farmer neighbor in a small Welsh town near Cardiff.  The disappearance of his oldest daughter, Pia—progeny of the first union—from university in London warrants his first rail pass back to London.  He finds her in an illegal sublet of a council flat with a Polish immigrant, Marek, a merchant on the make and the putative father of their in utero child.  Paul uses part of his modest inheritance to insert himself into this existence, creating echos of his own, former London life.  Like the rest of his purposeless existence, matters don’t unfold as expected—assuming he had any expectations that weren’t merely temporal, and selfish.

Meanwhile, back in Cardiff: Fellow only child Cora is busy renovating her dear, recently-departed parents’ home, ostensibly for sale but with equal parts personal reclamation or reinvention.  She’s just quit London and her marriage of several years to Robert, 15 years her senior and an unremarkable Home office bureaucrat—a union promoted by his younger sister, Frankie, who remains Cora’s best friend and restless emotional compass.  Cora spends her days part-time as an assistant librarian in town and full-time wrestling with how best to close out her chapter with Robert.  She agrees reluctantly to a proper, equitable divorce championed earnestly by him, emblematic of a compassionate end to a passionless relationship—until he goes missing.  Turns out their term of union involved someone else.

Thus is Hadley’s rail-bound metaphor completed—two existences propelled in parallel routine, back and forth, until intertwined and complicated by chance.  We wonder, as Paul and Cora do (sometimes to the point of obsession), what, if anything, lies beyond.

Besides the surprise, Hadley brings the pleasures of her sensibility to The London Train.  She herself dwells in Cardiff, so her structure and narrative are infused with the modest gravity of those who have spent centuries in a mystic and never-settled relationship with coastal seas.  Unlike too many in our fiction this side of the pond, her characters thrash through their own turmoil anchored in the appreciation that they are mere players in a larger drama, rather than its inventors.  (My working theory is that, with the perspective of age and experience, cultures in the other hemisphere are existentially Galilean while we, being young and brash, are Copernican.  How else to explain our dismissal of those from whom we sprang as “socialist?”)

Her structure appealed to me because it incorporates that sensibility.  Her narrative is unbiased but original to each character, without resorting to first-person, which gives it a sense of both participation and a lack of narcissism.  The words of Paul, Cora and all the others in their orbits are set off not by quotation marks but by hyphens, which give—me, at least—the impression of being just enough to validate the narrator’s whole and nonjudgmental assessment of who they are and where they’re headed, in the moment and ultimately.

And, oh, the prose.  Our first encounter with Elise, Paul’s second wife:

Paul called her a Kalmyk because of her wide cheekbones.  Her skin was an opulent pale gold, she had flecked hazel eyes; her mouth was wide, with fine red lips that closed precisely.  She was three years older than he was, the flesh was thickening into creases under her eyes.  She had begun dyeing her hair the colour of dark honey, darker than the blonde she had been.

Paul, ruminating on his first daughter’s unexpected pregnancy:

He had a vision of how dumbfounding it was, Pia’s originating as a tiny folded form invisible inside her mother, and now inside her unfolded realized self, starting the same thing over: forms folded within forms.  How different it was to be male, to feel the unfolding come to an end in your biological self, which could not be divided.  The role of the male in this endless sequence was an act of faith, however definite the science.  A Frenchman had said to him once that the man’s role in making a child was about as much as ‘this’—he’d spat on the pavement.

And Cora, on the progress of life:

Once, Cora had believed that living built a cumulative bank of memories, thickening and deepening as life went on, shoring you against emptiness.  She had used to treasure up relics from every phase of her life as it had passed, as if they were holy.  Now that seemed to her a falsely consoling model of experience.  The present was always paramount, in a way that thrust you forward: empty, but also free.  Whatever stories you told to yourself and others, you were in truth exposed and naked in the present, a prow cleaving new waters; your past was insubstantial behind, it fell away, it grew into desuetude, its forms obsolete.  The problem was, you were always still alive, until the end.  You had to do something.

Out of context, these passages appear bleak.  Inside the tapestry Hadley fashions—especially lying among her rich, evocative descriptions of her beloved countryside—these and all the others are affirming, and elevate everything into meaning.

Oh—and, as first a novelist, she speaks highly and affectionately of short stories.


  1. Camille Hayes

    Thanks for reviewing this, and for focusing so much on her writing style. So many reviews are all plot summary, and always leave me thinking “Yes, but how is the writing?” Since I’m both a fan of non-linear narrative and a bit of an Anglophile, I think this may be next on my fiction list!

    1. E.G. Fabricant

      Thanks, Camille. For me, it’s all about the words and where they take you–the Welsh sensibility in such flawed characters was such a pleasant surprise.

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