Title: The Railwayman's Wife
Author: Ashley Hay
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Read: March 16 - 23, 2013
In a small town on the land's edge, in the strange space at a war's end, a widow, a poet and a doctor each try to find their own peace, and their own new story.
In Thirroul, in 1948, people chase their dreams through the books in the railway's library. Anikka Lachlan searches for solace after her life is destroyed by a single random act. Roy McKinnon, who found poetry in the mess of war, has lost his words and his hope. Frank McKinnon is trapped by the guilt of those his treatment and care failed on their first day of freedom. All three struggle with the same question: how now to be alive.
Written in clear, shining prose and with an eloquent understanding of the human heart, The Railwayman's Wife explores the power of beginnings and endings, and how hard it can be sometimes to tell them apart. It's a story of life, loss and what comes after; of connection and separation, longing and acceptance. Most of all, it celebrates love in all its forms, and the beauty of discovering that loving someone can be as extraordinary as being loved yourself.
A story that will break your heart with hope.
In Thirroul in 1948 the sound of the railway is a steady presence in Annika Lachlan’s life. Then one day the trains don’t run – there has been an accident further up the line, Annika is told, and her husband Mac’s life has been lost. Suddenly widowed and alone with her eleven year old daughter Bella, Ani is forced to take a job as librarian in the small town’s library.
Enveloped in her grief but forced out of solitude by her new job, Ani comes into contact with other hurt souls. Roy McKinnon, a poet, whose wartime experiences have left him unable to write about the beauty he sees all around him. Doctor Frank Draper, recently returned from Germany where he has witnessed unspeakable horrors after the liberation of the concentration camps, and who blames himself for being unable to prevent the deaths of many patients in his care. And Iris McKinnon, who has waited years for her sweetheart to return from the war, only to find him scarred and battered, a changed man.
As these troubled people meet, they find solace in each other’s company as they try to rebuild their lives and come to term with their individual grief.
Hay’s beautiful prose takes the reader on a heartbreaking journey of discovery of loss and grief and the way different people deal with tragedy. As Annika progresses through the different stages of sudden widowhood – the shock, the anger, the fear and the bottomless sorrow – her job in the town’s library brings her into contact with other people scarred by tragedy. Slowly she manages to bring joy back into her life, but her husband’s death remains an omnipresent void in her life.
“The year I’ve had, Dr Draper, here, with my daughter, making sense of this strange new world. I’ve lost my husband. I have this job. I wake up in my room, in my house. And yet everything, everything is different.”
It took me quite a long time to connect with the characters in this book, but once I did I was quickly drawn into the story and its emotional landscape. The blurb talks about hope, and yet hope was a fleeting thing for me, like sunshine only briefly breaking through the clouds. It left me wondering if the people in the story could ever be whole again, especially after closing the last page. At what stage is the damage too great to ever being able to move on, to start anew?
Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will be able to relate to some of the emotions described in this story. The Railwayman’s Wife is not a cheerful book but one which invites introspection and reflection. It also skilfully draws the reader’s attention to the emotional legacy of war, and its repercussions long after it is over, and many continents away from the battlefields. With her poetic prose, Hay brings to life the atmosphere of a small coastal town in post-war Australia and its people.
Thank you to the publisher Allen & Unwin for supplying me with a free copy of this novel. The thoughts expressed in this review are strictly my own.
This book forms part of my 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.