It’s 1948, and although the war has been over for years, its echoes reverberate.
In Thirroul, a small town on the coast south of Sydney, Anikka Lachlan counts herself among the lucky ones. Her husband, Mac, stayed in Thirroul to operate the railway rather than heading off to war like so many of the town’s men, who left and didn’t return.
Though unable to afford anything extravagant on Mac’s railwayman’s wage, the couple and their ten-year-old daughter, Isabel, are happy in their simple home by the ocean.
When Mac is killed in an accident at work, Anikka’s blissful existence is shattered. Mac’s colleagues at the railway, kind-hearted but tactless, suggest Anikka take a vacant position at Thirroul railway station’s library. Faced with the prospect of raising her daughter alone, Anikka has little choice but to accept. A lover of books and a frequent visitor to the library, Anikka considers the job a tiny blessing.
As Anikka adjusts to the rhythm of her new life, two men find their way to the library; childhood friends who have only recently returned to Thirroul after the war. Frank Draper, a doctor sent into the concentration camps after the fighting had ceased, still scarred by the horror of what he found there, and Roy McKinnon, a soldier-turned-poet, who managed to find beauty amongst the chaos and terror of war.
Haunted by a war that’s over but still lingers, a life that’s gone but somehow continues, Anikka, Frank and Roy slowly begin to make sense of their new lives, and to tend to the wounds they know time will never heal.
An elegiac tale of love, loss and letting go, Ashley Hay’s second novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, shimmers with grace. It’s an unhurried, lyrical novel; sad and sweet at the same time. Hay’s pace is deliberately languid as she drifts smoothly between events in the present and the past, as gradually we learn, in alternating chapters, how Mac and Annika met and fell in love – first with each other, and then with Thirroul.
Hay also focuses on Roy and Frank as they try to begin their lives again after the war. Roy is unable to return to work, unable to write and unable to even sleep, wandering the streets at night. Gradually, shyly, Roy discovers a new source of inspiration: Anikka. The poem he writes for her, ‘Lost World’, is the keystone of this novel. It’s a breathless, enchanting piece written especially for the novel by poet Stephen Edgar, and it fits into the novel seamlessly.
It’s a pity Frank Draper isn’t explored in anywhere near as much detail as Roy. Granted, his role isn’t as central to the novel, but nonetheless, Frank feels underdeveloped; a missed opportunity. It’s perhaps Hay’s only false step.
Books and poems form a huge part of the everyday lives of Hay’s characters. Anikka and Roy bond over a shared love of Jane Eyre, while Mac and his daughter both love adventure novels.
On her first day working in the library, Anikka is drawn towards the library’s records, where she finds the borrowing cards of her own family:
She glances at the names of the library’s borrowers, names from church, from Isabel’s school, from conversations in the street. The lady who owns the dress shop has been borrowing Penguin classics. Mrs Padman, Mrs Bower, Mrs Floyd – their husbands all crossed out of the register; probably Mac had been crossed out like that now too … Her fingers flick towards L for Lachlan: Ani, Isabel – and Mac. And there it is, the list of every book he’s ever borrowed, the line now through his name, the terrible sense of a thing reckoned complete and unalterable.
The moment Anikka realises Mac’s life is really over is the moment she realises he will read no more. Though it’s a terribly sad passage, there’s something pleasing, as an avid reader, in this subtle suggestion that our lives are defined by the books we read.
One book that’s ever-present in The Railwayman’s Wife is, of course, DH Lawrence’s Kangaroo. Published in 1923, Kangaroo is Thirroul’s literary claim to fame. Lawrence wrote Kangaroo while living briefly in Thirroul, and the novel is, in part, set there. Like the characters of The Railwayman’s Wife, Lawrence was a man deeply affected by war – although in Lawrence’s case, the First World War.
While Lawrence casts a sardonic disdain over Thirroul in Kangaroo, the way Hay writes about the town is entirely different. Hay shows us her native Thirroul from many angles – from the beach, from the escarpment above the town, from the window of a train, and, in every instance, it is intensely beautiful. It’s almost impossible to read The Railwayman’s Wife and not allow yourself to be caught up in Hay’s subtle enthusiasm for this unique place.
The Railwayman’s Wife is an elegant novel, rendered with consummate skill. It’s charged with emotion – after all, how could a novel about grief be anything else? – but Hay never lets herself stray into melodrama or mawkish sentiment. Reading The Railwayman’s Wife, there’s the feeling that Hay is in control of this narrative at all times. While the novel bears a hefty emotional impact, it never slips from Hay’s capable hands.
As for whether the reader will be able to contain the emotions it stirs quite so skilfully – that remains to be seen.
Ashley Hay The Railwayman’s Wife Allen & Unwin 2013 PB 320pp $29.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).
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