The London Train – Book Review

[…] it was remarkable, he thought, how little mark the tumult of inward experience leaves on the external shells we inhabit. – from The London Train, page 315 –

Paul is grieving the death of his elderly mother and feels oddly detached from his wife, Elise, and their two small daughters. When he gets a frantic call from his ex-wife that their daughter, Pia, has disappeared, Paul boards a train from his home in Cardiff, Wales in order to travel to London in search of her. He finds Pia pregnant and living with her Polish boyfriend and her boyfriend’s sister, Anna, in a rundown flat. Inexplicably drawn to Anna, Paul eventually abandons his family in Wales and moves into Pia’s flat in London.

In a parallel story, Cora finds herself disenfranchised with her marriage to the much older Robert. She leaves him in London and moves back to her childhood home in Wales which she inherited after the death of her parents. When she learns that Robert has gone missing, she rushes back to London in search of him.

The London Train is about these two characters. What appears to be divergent stories, eventually weave together through a series of flashbacks, memories, and the unexpected crossing of paths during a train ride. The first half of the book follows Paul’s journey through grief and loss, betrayal and abandonment. The second half of the book, which I found much more compelling, examines Cora’s life shortly after her mother’s death and the disintegration of her marriage. It is through Cora’s story that the reader discovers the connection between Paul and Cora.

Tessa Hadley’s prose is subtle. Her narrative ebbs and flows, giving glimpses into the lives of her characters, revealing their flaws and fears, showing us their daily lives and how a chance meeting reverberates beyond them to touch the lives of those closest to them.

They were all of them sleepwalking to the edge of a great pit, like spoiled trusting children, believing they would always be safe, be comfortable. – from The London Train, page 90 –

Thematically, the novel centers around grief and loss, and  how we cover our emotional wounds. The journey through grief is symbolically captured in the relentless, monotonous movement of the London train – it moves forward and back, from London to Wales, and back to London – just as our emotions click back and forth from loss to recovery. Interestingly, the effect this had on me as a reader was almost hypnotic. The characters’ feelings are strangely muted at times – a disconcerting thing in the face of their great losses and dislocation.

With the loss of her parents behind her, and the loss of the babies she might have had ahead, she was withdrawn out of the past and future into this moment of herself, like a barren island, or a sealed box. – from The London Train, page 234 –

The London Train is a very slow moving novel. I must admit, the first half of the book dragged for me. I did not particularly like Paul, a man whose narcissism causes him to cheat on his wife, then abandon her and his children. Even when he returns to Elise, he seems to lack any understanding as to how his behavior has injured her. Luckily, the second half the book, which focuses on Cora, was better paced. Cora, although also seriously flawed and only marginally more likeable, was a character whose struggles were more relate-able to me. Cora’s grief over the loss of her mother, her inability to have children, and her loneliness were believable, and Cora becomes a more empathetic character as her story unfolds.

Overall, I found The London Train to be a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I enjoyed some of the subtlety of the novel, and Hadley’s writing drew me in. On the other hand, the pace was so slow at times, and the characters so unlikeable (especially Paul), that I found my mind drifting – I wanted these characters to just get on with their lives, figure it out, and stop being so selfish.

The London Train was long listed for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Readers who enjoy literary fiction and subtle writing styles might want to give The London Train a try. Read other reviews of this book by following the links on the TLC Book Tour page.

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Tessa Hadley is the author of The Master Bedroom, Sunstroke and Other Stories, Everything Will Be All Right, and Accidents in the Home. Sunstroke and Other Stories was a New York Times Notable Book of 2007, and Accidents in the Home was long-listed for The Guardian’s First Book Award. She lives in Cardiff, Wales, and teaches literature and creative writing at Bath Spa University.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog through TLC Book Tours.

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  1. I agree with everything you say – I just wanted to give the characters a good slap! I didn’t make it to the end so it is quite good to see that I wasn’t missing much. I hope you enjoy your next book more.

  2. Ugh, I hate when a book is written well but not paced well. This looks like it has/had potential. I’m sorry it didn’t really work. :O/

    • Aths on May 27, 2011 at 05:24

    It’s interesting you liked Cora more, because I also happened to enjoy the 2nd part of the book better. I didn’t like Paul much either.

  3. Sometimes I enjoy a slow moving novel, but only when the characterization is really well done. I am not sure if I would like this one, but I am thinking about giving it a try since I think the plot sounds rather intriguing. Great review. I am going to think about adding this one to my wish list.

    • Donna on May 29, 2011 at 16:43

    I quite like Paul. I’m just starting Cora’s part of the story.

    • Wendy on May 30, 2011 at 15:24

    Jackie: Yup, looks like we completely agreed on this book!

    Pam: I’m sorry I didn’t like it more too – I had so looked forward to it.

    Aths: *nods* I read your review – it looks like we were pretty much on the same track (pun intended!!)

    Heather: You should try it. The reviews have varied widely from DNRs to loves…

    Donna: I’m glad you liked Paul…I just could not relate to him at all!!

  4. I’m glad that you found the second part of the book to be more to your liking, but it’s too bad the whole book didn’t have the same feeling for you.

    Thanks for being on the tour Wendy.

    • Wendy on June 6, 2011 at 09:52

    Heather: As always, touring books for TLC is a pleasure…thanks for having me!

    • Sandra on July 13, 2011 at 22:42

    I thought the first half was a slog too and was relieved when it was finished. The story was not so much slow for me as just too ordinary, although the conclusion was satisfying so I’m glad I stuck with it. Romance and/or personal relationship stuff is just too dull for me personally. I was hoping for more from an Orange Prize nominee.

    • Wendy on July 18, 2011 at 06:17

    Sandra: *nods* It was a disappointment….

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