[Harper Perennial; 2011]
by Anna-Claire Stinebring
The London Train is comprised of two narratives that stand separately and run parallel. Both sections follow the thoughts of their protagonists, Paul and Cora, though the characters’ actions remain at a further distance. Each character struggles with the existential questions they find themselves forced into: being only children and losing a parent; facing romantic commitments and romantic upheavals; finding themselves with children or childless. Paul and Cora mirror one another in their genuine anguish, and in their frustrating lack of self-knowledge.
The long first section of The London Train follows Paul, who is a critic and writer. An impulsive man with a penchant for abstract thinking, he romanticizes a younger, freer version of himself. In contrast, Paul finds himself entirely surrounded by demanding women: his wife, his two young daughters, an ex-wife, and a pregnant daughter from his first marriage.
As the first section unfolds, Paul rapidly begins to question the bucolic existence he shares with his family in rural Wales. Their house is filled with whimsical furniture his wife has restored, surrounded by an orchard and goats, and peppered with dinner parties that Paul enjoys steering into dire conversations about societal decline and regeneration.
This kind of conversation continues across the novel, varied by buzzwords like “climate change,” “immigration,” and “class struggle.” It has the kind of lulling effect of train travel, fluid and impressionistic, but in this novel the buzzwords and big ideas never go anywhere. That’s part of the point, of course. The reader has more perspective than Paul, and is free to judge the steady stream of dialogues Paul has with other people and inside himself. Even when Paul acts—rashly moving in with his pregnant daughter in her squalid London flat—he seems all blustering talk, and the reader is left to endure his fragile arrogance long after the dinner parties have been cleaned up.
Cora dominates the second, shorter section of the novel. She is a childless English teacher turned librarian, who has recently left her husband and life in London to reclaim her deceased parents’ home in Wales. While Paul is heavy with commitments, Cora grows thin and solitary until she seems like she might float away. The sentences in Cora’s section are longer and less stubbornly declarative, but staying in Cora’s mind too long is an arid affair. At best, there is a lyrical beauty to her spare, fragile present:
On a bench, with her face lifted to the sunshine, Cora felt like a convalescent put outside to build up her strength from day to day; only she didn’t like to ask herself what she was building it for.
Vivid characters come into her house, or she seeks them out, but ultimately Cora does not let them into her confidence.
In contrast to Cora’s ascetic state, Paul is a kind of addict to intimacy, chasing the next fix. But both characters, swimming in their own thoughts, retain a cold passivity in their interactions. Cora drifts from life dispassionately, and Paul enacts his midlife crisis as if he is a spectator looking in at someone else. The tension in the first section hinges on whether Paul will return to his domesticated life in Wales, and the tension in Cora’s narrative becomes whether she will return from her family home to the husband she left. Paul’s story veers into melodrama, but then it pulls back, ending in a note of vivid perception and narrative restraint. The improbabilities of Cora’s story enrich it, though there’s an incongruous note of rescue at the end of each section that feels a little too pat.
Competently and at times beautifully written, The London Train lacks the larger insight that fills in and enlivens a careful study of characters who are closed-off.