"Love is a kind of comfortable pretense ... muffling everyone's separation from one another, which is absolute." So thinks the disenchanted 35-year-old woman who has left her stalwart, workaholic older husband in the second half of Tessa Hadley's diptych of a novel, The London Train.
Like her earlier books, which include The Master Bedroom (2007) and the same year's Sunstroke and Other Stories (four of which first appeared in The New Yorker), The London Train brings a quiet, nuanced intelligence to domestic fiction. British writer Hadley's focus is on the intricate tangle of marriage, divorce, lovers, close friends, children and stepchildren — the web people create for themselves, sometimes happily, often ambivalently.
The London Train recasts these familial preoccupations in an intriguing, sophisticated structure — which adds resonance to a somewhat spindly, creeping plot. The novel takes the form of two seemingly separate stories which hinge at a crucial meeting point — on the eponymous train between Cardiff, Wales, and London's Paddington station — and turn out to be mirror images of each other. The use of intertwining plots brings to mind Maggie O'Farrell's 2010 novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, while the randomness of the chance but pivotal encounter evokes Noel Coward's classic extramarital love story, Brief Encounter.
The London Train involves adultery, but its deeper concern is with how long-term relationships withstand various strains, including not just illicit affairs but family and work pressures and, perhaps most significantly, time and our essential discreteness as individuals. Each half of the book focuses on a character who, for different reasons, yo-yos repeatedly between Cardiff and London, leaving and returning to, in each case, a somewhat bewildered spouse.
Paul is a literary critic who counterbalances "the heady instability of a life lived in the mind" with his "life-saving" attachment to his two small daughters. When his daughter from his first marriage — whom he'd long neglected — becomes pregnant and drops out of university, Paul leaves his family in Wales and, bizarrely, joins her for weeks in the grim London flat she shares with her Polish boyfriend. Not recognizing his own dazed state following his mother's death, he declares his ostensible goal to "shake her awake" and bring her home. Meanwhile, his daughter keeps telling him, "This is what I want" — until she decides it isn't, after all.
The latter half of Hadley's novel, Cora's story, is a mirror image of Paul's midlife crisis. It makes more sense after we learn how the two connect — a discovery I'll leave to the reader. Suffice it to say that 12 years into her childless marriage to a senior civil servant who puts his work above all, and three years after the death of her own mother, Cora embraces a solitary, detached existence "in a perpetual present" by moving back into her parents' gut-renovated house in Cardiff. "I don't want anything," she keeps telling her eminently reasonable husband — until his sudden disappearance shakes them both out of their complacency.
The London Train is the sort of muted, thoughtful read that requires switching from the clattering express onto life's slow local tracks. Hadley, a meticulous stylist, has woven into her narrative reflections on memory and time. But, more than ideas, it is images like the "hawk beak" of a man's sexual interest "jabbing" at a woman that repay the careful reader.