THE RAILWAYMAN’S WIFE
Author: Ashley Hay
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
It doesn’t get any easier, he thinks, making himself keep walking. It doesn’t get any easier, the being here, or the being.
It’s taken me a while to write this review. I finished The Railwayman’s Wife a few weeks ago, but felt that I needed to let the book settle in my mind. Do other readers ever feel like that? It’s a beautifully written book, but truth is, it’s a melancholy book (see the quote above) – a story of love, loss and slowly healing hearts. I wanted to be in the right head space to review it.
Set just after World War II in a small coastal town south of Sydney, The Railwayman’s Wife is an atmospheric read that relies as much on place as it does the characters’ feelings; like the town on the edge of the escarpment, the characters are all on the edge of their feelings, teetering close to the precipice of their minds. The setting appealed even more to me because of its familiarity: as a child, it was this beach, and the neighbouring Austinmer, that my family went to for day trips now and then. If you look at the picture below, imagine a railway cutting through the escarpment, through bush and sandstone and surging towards the coast. While the picture helps, Hay’s descriptions were vivid enough to conjure up my own memories – I could see the landscape exactly as she painted it (helps that I’ve been there, though).
The novel is set a few years after the war and focuses on the experiences of three very different people – a widow, a poet and a doctor. Annika Lachlan (Ani) moves to Thirroul with her husband, a railwayman; they forge a happy life with their daughter, with Ani secretly glad the spotlight of death has avoided her husband because of his exemption from war service. All around her other women have lost their husbands and sons, and all the while Ani repeats the mantra Keep us safe, keep us safe. And then, her husband is lost in a single random act. Hay words Ani’s thoughts with gentle illumination: “Now that searchlight has found her, catching her in its sweep and pinning her, arbitrary and irrecovable”. As the months pass, Ani takes a job in the railway library, slowly building a different life for her and young Isabel.
She cannot remember how much breakfast he ate that last day. She is trying to make her peace with these gaps, these elisions – pushing away her journal and pulling towards herself any story by anyone else instead, as long as it has a man and a woman falling in love; as long as it has a happy ending.
Roy McKinnon, a poet who has lost his words to the horrors of war, is battling hopelessness and helplessness; his depression mirrors that of many servicemen unable to give voice to their experiences. His words introduce this review and I think any reader who has battled depression could relate to what he’s trying to say – sometimes it just doesn’t get any easier. I am also sure his words echo the thoughts of many a returning serviceman who has buried unthinkable horrors and is trying to find the good in life again. When Roy meets Ani in the library and she helps him rediscover his love for words, he allows a sliver of hope that life is worth living to pierce his heart once more.
Frank Draper, a doctor, introduces another element to this story of loss and learning to live again, that of survival guilt. Frank is unable to let go of the guilt he feels for failing some in his care. How does he live when he feels guilty that so many cannot? Returning to Thirroul, to usher in life and death in the small community, feels hollow now. Living feels like a hollow victory for him. His abrupt nature does not go unnoticed by others, but most fail to understand its roots. Draper is a minor character compared to Ani and Roy – the reader knows less of him than the other two, but still he adds depth by showing that war’s impact is widespread and different for each person.
Roy grabs his friend’s hand and shakes it … ‘You were right to come back here – it will be all right, I reckon.’ ‘Nothing will ever be all right, mate,’ says Draper, stepping away.
The Railwayman’s Wife is slow to start and it did take me a while to emotionally connect with the characters, especially Ani, who seemed to quietly go about things, containing her grief deep within. I think I expected more of an outpouring of grief, but instead grief slowly chugged into the story on a train of words, releasing emotions like steam slowly venting until the pressure forces it out in a sudden, hot blast. When Ani finds a poem written for her, evoking myriad emotions, I wanted to cry for her – for her grief, her hope and her lack of understanding about the poem’s origin. That was when my breath caught and I sagged with her, feeling her buried and surfacing pain. And then, later close to the end, another moment when my breath caught, and sadness filled me because the cost of living and ‘freedom’ was too high.
Hay’s exploration of love, marriage, post-war life, loss, grief, guilt, endings and beginnings is expertly done with a tender but realistic touch. She has delivered a moving and profound book that will appeal to lovers of literary fiction and words. It’s not an uplifting, happy-ever-after book – after closing the book I felt a lingering sadness, but, while it is on the melancholy side, a sense of hope is still evoked. I’m glad I read it.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: A cup of tea and a biscuit to dunk in it.