Sometimes the written word is at its most beautiful when it recounts the hardest things in life. These things—cruelty, betrayal, the loss of something precious—call forth the deepest emotions and expose the most stubborn truths. So a tale of romance, for instance, can be a beautiful and enjoyable thing in itself, but when tension or hardship are added to the mix the story reaches an altogether different level of beauty and poignancy. When the written word reflects hard emotions and truths in honesty, we recognize ourselves in it and find in it a great beauty. A writer who does this can achieve no greater goal.
There are passages of such beauty in Ashley Hay’sThe Railwayman’s Wife, a tale of the aftermath of loss. In the shadow of World War II in 1948, three individuals in the small town of Thirroul in eastern Australia learn again how to live after experiencing tragedy. Housewife Ani Lachlan’s husband is killed in a railway accident. Roy McKinnon loses his vision for poetry and Dr. Frank Draper his compassion among the horrors of war-torn Europe. The Railwayman’s Wife is an exploration of life lived with grief—with the impressions that grief and memory leave behind and the impressions that we leave upon each other.
The novel centers on Ani, her memories of her husband, Mac, the way she experiences learning of his death, her relationship with her young daughter, Isabel, and how time moves her forward with a new job and new friendships. Ani’s chapters weave in and out with chapters about Roy and his quest to rediscover his poetry and with a few chapters of Mac’s own memories. Ani, Roy, and Frank meet occasionally, and over the space of the year following Mac’s death, change each other in small but powerful ways. Aside from a handful of consequential events, little happens in the “plot,” yet the words and chapters deeply explore the fluid life of the mind and the changes that happen there. By the end of the book, we have a layered impression of each person’s life, especially Ani’s.
The strength of The Railwayman’s Wife lies in the way Ashley Hay puts words together. The early chapters of the book sparkle with lively characterizations and with a strong sense of place in this town clinging to the Australian coast. The senses are all awake while reading—in the way that the ocean is always present, with its roar and salt-smelling spray, and the way that the railway regularly rumbles and screeches and pours out smoke—pinning the novel down to its time and place and reminding us that Ani’s life here on the coast, for good or ill, is tied up in the railroad. The most remarkable portion of the novel is where Ani learns of Mac’s death; the writing is so vivid I had to think,Yes, it would be exactly like that. From beginning to end, it is a pleasure to be immersed in the world of well-chosen words.
One of my favorite themes in the novel was the continued presence of books and libraries. The story opens with Ani reading a book, “any day, any year: call it 1935, 1938, 1945, or somewhere decades away in her future.” This theme resonates with me, and if you’re reading a blog about books, it probably will with you, too. When Mac dies, the railway offers Ani a job with the railway’s lending library. Sitting alone in the library, Ani remembers stepping into the big library in Sydney years before, her impressions of the quiet and of the measureless possibilities. The librarian there says to her, “There’s something about a room for thoughts and words . . . I’ve always wondered if paradise might not be a little like a library.” Libraries and the books within them play a part in healing Ani’s grief, and I only wish the theme had been developed even more.
“Such fascinating things, libraries. She closes her eyes. She could walk inside and step into a murder, a love story, a complete account of somebody else’s life, or mutiny on the high seas. Such potential; such adventure—there’s a shimmer of malfeasance in trying other ways of being.”
While I love the way Ashley Hay uses words in The Railwayman’s Wife, I don’t think the book is perfect. The beginning of the novel is tightly woven, several themes are introduced, relationships are formed; but, for me, the driving force fizzled out by the end and I was left with a mixed message. But I still wholeheartedly recommend the book for anyone who loves words and enjoys reading character-driven novels, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the book’s ending.