The London Train takes the reader on two separate journeys that parallel each other. The novel is split in two halves, portraying the lives of Paul and Cora, who are linked only by their affair together. In the first part of the novel the narrative follows Paul’s life: a middle-aged writer whose mother has just died. Paul lives in rural Wales with his second wife and two girls. Not long after he has begun to come to terms with this, he receives a call from his ex-wife telling him that his eldest daughter, Pia has gone missing. After travelling up to London and locating her, Paul realises why Pia had been reluctant to get in-touch – she’s pregnant. After an argument with his wife, Elise, Paul temporarily stays with Pia, sleeping on the couch in her small council flat, doing import/export delivery jobs with her Polish boyfriend. For him it is a break from his frustrated upper class life as a writer. He realises that “he had always had a superstitious fear of being shut up somewhere without books; now that it had happened he hadn’t even consciously noticed.”
The second part of the novel delves into Cora’s life. Her marriage is falling apart and partly the reason for this is her affair with Paul of which her husband still has no idea. Cora is unable to have children, which, in the first section of the novel seems to be a major theme; it is Paul’s love for his children that keeps his marriage rooted, as well as his dedication to Pia and her unborn child. The reader is provided with more information about this affair, as, while Paul becomes someone Cora worships, to him she is simply “that girl”. Cora flees to her hometown, Cardiff and back to the house left to her by her parents in order to find some solitude. She leaves behind her husband, a senior civil servant who is predictable and driven by his work life, as well as her job as a teacher. Instead she takes on a monotonous part-time job at the local library. However, similar to Paul, Cora travels back to London after finding out that her husband has gone missing.
Tessa Hadley seems to have a knack for getting to the core of people’s private lives and on-goings. The going backwards and forwards of the train, seems to be a metaphor for paralleling lives. Through this and her characters, Hadley seems to be saying that people are always going back and forth in time to understand and resolve something left unattended. Hadley adapts the different male and female perspectives very naturally and comfortably despite having written mainly from a female perspective in her previous work. Hadley goes so far into her characters’ minds that the reader finds themself being drawn in to the point that they almost overlook some obvious faults and errors of their personality such as Paul giving his daughter’s mysterious boyfriend’s sister two thousand pounds in cash, or Cora impulsively turning up at her husband’s childhood ex in search for him. The readers might find themselves leaning more towards one character than the other or may not find either of them interesting enough. The characters are dissatisfied yet completely absorbed with their lives, and while Hadley has a skill for character, her novels seem to be lacking plot. The stories themselves seem to be no different to any other written about a middle-aged crisis.
The London Train deals with many themes. Political issues of class and background are portrayed through Elise’s high upbringing compared to Paul’s lower class one. Other themes that resonate are family and relationships, and the paralleling of lives that is central to any human experience. Hadley provides acute descriptions of Tre Rhiw, the rural village where Paul lives and Cardiff that are recognisable and familiar to anyone who has lived in the city. Yet despite all this, The London Train lacks that intensity at times which keeps the reader eagerly turning the pages.