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Review: The Railwayman’s Wife, by Ashley Hay
Atria, 2013. 269 pp. $26

One moment, you’re feeling confident, happy, because you believe that you’ve preserved the most precious part of life. The next moment, your security has vanished; how do you cope?

That’s the question behind this gorgeously written, deceptively gentle novel about loss. World War II has hardly ended, and Anneke Lachlan lives with her husband, Mac, and their ten-year-old daughter, Isabel, in an Australian coastal village. They’re the sort of people you’d love to know–thoughtful, passionate, delighting in beauty. They have little money, but their only regret on that score is not being able to visit Mac’s birthplace in Scotland, a trip they’ve both yearned to make. Nevertheless, they delight in fashioning or finding gifts for one another that offer new experiences or ways of seeing things.

Three Australian soldiers, all winners of the Victoria Cross, 1946 (Courtesy Australian War Memorial; public domain).

These three Australian soldiers all won the Victoria Cross and were lucky enough to live to tell about it (1946, courtesy Australian War Memorial; public domain).

But behind that warmth lurks the terrible suffering of the war, whose survivors are conscious that many people didn’t make it. Anneke, known as Ani, is glad her husband kept his job with the railroad rather than enlist. But in the back of her mind, she still worries sometimes, vaguely, that chance will take Mac from her yet. And that’s what happens; a railway accident claims his life, and the pain overwhelms her.

How Ani faces her loss–or not–makes a touching, subtle narrative, of small moments carefully rendered that reveal her character, her place in the village, how people look out for her, and what they expect. She takes a part-time job in the tiny local library and tries to find solace in books. Nor is she the only one to suffer. Frank Draper, a doctor who served in the war, can’t forget the liberated concentration camp inmates whose lives he couldn’t save. He returns to his native village irritable, cynical, and morose, taking up a medical practice but unsure whether he’ll stay.

His boyhood friend Roy McKinnon, a poet who also saw wartime action and won fame for a single poem about it, has come back also, so shaken that he can’t write. He lives with his lonely, difficult sister, Iris, who loved Frank Draper before the war and still hopes to marry him. Roy takes a fancy to Ani, first as a muse, as he struggles to find words worth putting on a page, and then more deeply. But will any of these people have the emotional resilience to break out of the hardened defenses they’ve built for themselves? There are still words they can never say (or write), because they seem risky or paltry or ridiculous next to how they’ve been hurt, or too challenging for the myths they’ve woven to comfort themselves.

A lesser authorial hand might have surrendered to the temptation to dip these familiar themes and situations in treacle and serve up an easier story. Not here. Hay has taken the high road, climbing a good, long way to do so. With one exception, nobody makes life simple for themselves or anyone else, whatever kindness or generosity they may have, and they often refuse to see what’s plainly before them. That makes them utterly believable. And as I suggested above, the prose doesn’t hurt, either:

It’s a still and sunny day, the water flat and inky, the escarpment colored golden and orange, pink and brown. As the train takes the curves and bends of its line, the mountain’s rock faces become great stone monoliths that might have come from Easter Island, and then the geometric edges of some desert temple. Here are the hellish-red gashes of coke ovens; here is the thin space where there’s only room, it seems, for a narrow road, a narrow track, between the demands of sea and stone.

Hay strikes two false notes, however, in her characterizations. Isabel, Ani’s daughter, is the exception to the high road, the only person not to subvert herself. She’s impossibly adorable, empathic and perceptive beyond her years, a child you’d gladly bring home and raise as your own. Unfortunately, I don’t believe she exists. Not once does she act out, throw a tantrum, complain, or even shout or scream–and this is a girl who just lost the father she worshiped. Not only that, when Ani raises her voice to her–all two instances of it–the mother feels like a criminal, which feels too perfect.

At the other extreme, Frank Draper becomes more human, though it’s not clear how. He’s not the sort to talk about what he saw or his feelings, so I want to see how Iris expects to cozy up to him. But Hay doesn’t show this. Are we meant to assume that Iris believes her interest in Frank will melt his icy exterior? I’d need to see that happen before I agree with her.

All the same, The Railwayman’s Wife is a beautiful novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.