Culture Watch Reviews by Joan L. Cannon: The Railway Man's Wife and The Yoga of Max's Discontent
THE RAILWAYMAN'S WIFE
By Ashley Hay, © 2016
Published by Atria Books; Hardcover, 288 pages
A friend who was both a librarian and a book dealer once told me that a reader should definitely judge books by their covers. She meant that the titles, the jacket copy, not necessarily the cover art were important in deciding whether or not to read a book.
Nothing about reviewing is impartial, in my opinion, so I say at the outset that I wanted to read The Railwayman's Wife as soon as I saw the pre-release comments. "Poetic language," "character-driven," "celebrates love in all its forms" appealed to me.
Ashley Hay has more nonfiction to her credit than fiction. Perhaps an ability to penetrate beneath surfaces helps her to depict the lives of her widowed protagonist and those around her with both clarity and empathy.
This is not a novel whose plot depends on action or conflict. It is the inner life of its major players that is revealed. Hay describes vividly a landscape that enriches each of the main characters, and that beguiles the reader as brilliantly as any travel brochure. Such lyrical prose is uncommon. Hay limns in words as stunningly artistic as any painter with colors on canvas or paper.
Laid shortly after the end of World War II, this is a story about a young widow whose marriage was happy. She is suddenly bereaved, and left with a young daughter. The reader sees her trying to make a balanced life after the worst loss she can imagine. Hay shows us Ani’s Lachlan memories and enlarges our understanding of what her happiness was like. Hay makes artful use of flashbacks.
The narrative might make a depressing story, but it does not. There is none of the 'gritty' gratuitous harshness to which we have become inured. We like the people. Hay makes us understand the calm of an ordinary existence.
The mournful events are redeemed partly by an attitude that will strike a chord in many of us who grew up in the forties and fifties, or earlier: a kind of restrained, mannerly behavior pattern that has gone out of fashion in so many layers of modern society. This faintly archaic atmosphere, (perhaps part of Australian mores that is unfamiliar to Americans), lends this piercing look at love, loss, loyalty, and loneliness a special appealing flavor.
One is left with brilliant images of a landscape that offers its own distractions, and a depiction of how heartache can overtake people’s lives. Hay describes loves lost, pasts savaged by shock and horror, hopes defeated in the wake of happenings not yet consigned to experience. The story is about grief, for losses of more than one kind. Grief is the centerpiece of this unflinching look at people who are suffering from it.
The images are beautiful, gently heroic, and very sad. Nevertheless, you will be glad to have seen them. You will remember Ani Lachlan and the others with real affection.
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