The first book of 2010 was chosen for me by the BBC. I was excited and worried at the same time. Whatever was I going to say on the radio if I didn’t like it! In the end there was no cause for concern.
I hadn’t read Tessa Hadley before but the title of her previous novel The Master Bedroom had placed her firmly in the contemporary women’s fiction bracket in my mind. That perception was confirmed in reading The London Train. I wonder though if she’s taken some criticism for this. At one point her female lead, Cora seems to stand on a soapbox in defence of the genre.
She wasn’t reading anything strenuous these days: women’s novels, commercial novels, some of which, she and Annette agreed, were remarkably well written, better than much so-called literary fiction, more true to life.
That statement could well substitute for my review because it is an accurate summing up of The London Train. Not too challenging, true to life, a women’s novel in the sense that it is preoccupied with emotional lives, and very well-written. Hadley’s command of language is exceptional whether she is conjuring up a whole person in a sentence;
Gerald was delicately intelligent sceptical, huge, with a craggy pockmarked fae, massive jaw, long hair tucked behind his ears.
or summarising the emotional conflicts of her male lead, Paul;
Sometimes Paul thought that Gerald’s freedom was what he wanted most and was deprived of, because of the distractions of his family. But he shrank from it too; what bound him to the children seemed to him life-saving. He thought of them as his blessing, counterbalancing the heady instability of a life lived in the mind.
Neither is Hadley afraid of taking risks.
Firstly, the structure. The two stories – those of Paul and Cora – are told separately. The first half of the book belongs to Paul, the second entirely to Cora. Though there are faint echoes of Paul’s story in Cora’s, you have to read 60+ pages of Cora’s story before the incident on the London train which finally establishes the connection and transforms the book into a coherent novel. After which, the story grows in depth and resonance as it becomes apparen that Cora did appear in Paul’s story and that a reread of the first half would bring a few surprises and a re-evaluation.
Secondly, it’s a gamble to write about two not entirely likeable main characters. Obviously I’m not going to take the man’s side in a woman’s novel, but neither did I take the woman’s. As in real-life, both main characters were flawed individuals. Sometimes I sympathised with them and sometimes not. They were complimented by their spouses, children, friends and acquaintances, all drawn with the same precision to form a varied cast through which Hadley explores a host of issues: love, loyalty, class, immigration, the complications of modern life.
I was thoroughly absorbed and delighted that my first read of 2010 turned out to be so enjoyable.