Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"The London Train," by Tessa Hadley

When I first read UK writer Tessa Hadley’s work, I was blown away. Wow! What a discovery! I immediately read her three novels, “Accidents in the Home,” “Everything Will Be All Right,” and “The Master Bedroom,” and continued to be amazed and impressed. I have now just read her newest novel, “The London Train” (Harper Perennial, 2011), and although I still savor her wonderful writing, her insights into her characters, and her sharp wit, I have some mixed feelings about the novel. It tells the story of Paul, a writer, and his family, with a subplot about his young adult daughter’s running away to London. Paul regularly travels on the train from Cardiff to London, and even lives for a brief time with his daughter and her boyfriend in an untidy apartment in a sketchy neighborhood. The second part of the novel introduces the character Cora, who is gradually leaving her husband, living more and more in the house in Cardiff she has inherited from her parents. The two stories merge when the two main characters meet on the London train, and soon begin an affair. I won’t tell you how it ends. Perhaps one reason I have mixed feelings about the book is that I couldn’t really understand Paul’s vague dissatisfaction with his life; he has a good relationship with his wife, and even his daughter’s situation is eventually resolved satisfactorily. He misses living in the city, but this isn’t a big issue. I know I shouldn’t dislike a story because I (somewhat) dislike a character. But my unease with the novel is more than that: there is a sort of vague, unsettled feeling to the story. I do understand that this is probably intended by the author. So my reasons for some slight resistance to this novel are probably my own idiosyncratic ones. What I do find interesting, in this novel as in all her work, is Hadley’s twist on “domestic fiction.” In a 2/26/11 interview in the Guardian UK, she says that she is interested in relationships and families, and does not think “domestic fiction” is a negative label. She thinks it can be, but doesn’t have to be, formulaic. She also discusses why men are often puzzled by women’s interest in such fiction. I still consider Hadley one of the best writers writing today, and I still eagerly look forward to reading anything she writes. I can’t resist, in closing, quoting from another writer I truly admire, Anne Enright, who has said (according to the same Guardian interview) that “Hadley, for all the felicity of her prose style, is an immensely subversive writer.” I like that, because I see that although she writes “domestic fiction” (which I read a lot of myself, and will strongly defend), her stories and characters and ideas are never predictable, and never bound by what is fashionable or what others will think is correct. She is a truly original writer.

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