‘The Railwayman’s Wife’ by Ashley Hay

My husband bought a copy of ‘The Railwayman’s Wife‘ in an independent bookshop some years ago, and it has languished on our bedroom bookcase, until, in line with my new philosophy of ‘let’s explore what we already own’ my husband chose it for me. Finally, I dipped in.

‘The Railwayman’s Wife’ by Ashley Hay repays close reading: unashamedly literary and reflective, it brims with quiet, beautifully described images that I find very refreshing: I hardly need to visit Australia, I can just absorb the language of this novel and the beauty that Hay conjures so deftly. Though I find I get the best from it when I read slowly, the plot is fairly minimal: man dies, his lovely wife and daughter manage for a while without him somehow, while two possible future mates come into widow’s orbit, one eventually marrying another woman, the other dying a tragic, minimalist death prefigured by unrequited love for the widow.

Sorry, is that a spoiler? You need not regard it as such.

This is a lovely book, one which has opened my eyes afresh to the power of simple words arranged on the page to convey deep and powerful meaning. I do, however, have one major quibble with the way in which the line of the plot unspools. Yes, the book is primarily character-driven, and yes, there is a certain inevitability in the widow at the end of the novel finding herself once more alone, without a man dangling after her who might offer hope of a new life, protection and security. But I’m struggling to take the death of the second man seriously.

Not only does he seemingly almost evaporate somehow in a very artistic fashion that leaves a lot to the imagination, but as anyone with unrequited longings will know, life is not that easily snuffed out. Also, I can’t for the life of me work out why the protagonists are so quiet, why they never actually get round to speaking their minds, daring to tell the truth. Is it the times they live in? The expectations they are hemmed in by? Probably. Yet, for an obviously clever woman, the widow seems remarkably slow on the uptake, and I can’t help just wishing that the plot had unwound with enough fire to keep the key characters alive until the end.

If they had just said what they needed to, found the courage to take the risk of being honest with each other, that would have been enough of a lesson – and dramatic enough – for a satisfying ending. I’m annoyed, somehow, that the plot finishes on a tragic whimper, and in a way that I can hardly credit.

Yes, there is of course the irony of a sad man who has survived so much to arrive home after the Second World War in one piece, only to end his life on a beach… And perhaps we expect too much of our characters to hope that everyone might speak their mind.

But if that was me, and I had survived hell on earth, I would want to run and shout and tell the truth and not waste another minute in quiet, respectful, erroneous introspection. There would have been room, and plenty of credibility, in a conclusion which had gumption in it, smiles and hugs and happy endings.

Just saying.

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