The London Train, Tessa Hadley’s elegant novel, tells two linked stories. In the first half, a middle-aged man, Paul, goes on a journey. His daughter from his first marriage, Pia, is pregnant—and living with some disreputable people. Paul imagines he might save Pia, but as he considers how unhappy he is in his own current domestic situation, he decides he might take a page from his daughter’s book. He lives with her for a while. When he snaps to his senses and returns to his marriage and his bourgeois life, he must decide if he can resume being the person he once was.
Then, in the second half, a woman named Cora struggles with some weighty problems of her own. Most pressing: Her estranged husband has gone missing. It emerges that Cora once had an affair with Paul, the man from the first half of the book, and this is why she is now separated from her husband, Robert. As she searches for Robert, she thinks about her (now-defunct) affair and about the wreckage of her marriage. She wonders if maybe she doesn’t want to be divorced after all.
Throughout both halves of the novel, Hadley’s literary talents are on display. She takes great care to describe the irrational ways in which people behave—especially the way in which a person’s train of thought can get derailed when that person spends too much time on his or her own. She notices how comically hypocritical people can be when they give advice, and notes how a person can become exhausted by inhabiting a slightly false personality. It’s clear that Hadley loves and closely watches the people around her, and that she has a real gift for explaining how the mind works.
Fans of Hadley’s absorbing New Yorker stories won’t want to miss The London Train. And anyone who is unfamiliar with her work but enjoys the graceful prose and psychological insight of Roxana Robinson or Penelope Lively should pick up a copy of this paperback original.