The Railwayman’s Wife
Allen & Unwin
Copy courtesy of the publisher/The Reading Room.com
It is 1948 and the Second World War is not long over. Those that survived are still making their way home and the scars are still obvious. Anikka Lachlan has been married to Mac for over 10 years and they live in Thirroul, a town on the northern outskirts of Wollongong in New South Wales with their daughter Isabel. Mac drives the trains and their life revolves around the hiss and steam of the engines as they make their way to and from the city.
Then Mac is taken from her in a random event that makes her question everything. He escaped the war, his job deemed necessary for him to stay at home so they could keep the transport lines open. For him to survive such a threat and then be killed in the way he did makes Anikka uncertain about everything. She is given a job in the Railway Library where the townsfolk of Thirroul come to check out their means of escapism – Kangaroo by D.H Lawrence, which was written when he was staying in Thirroul, Jane Eyre, and the works of various poets. It is the place where Anikka comes to life again, not only given a purpose but the way in which she can be useful to people, sourcing what they want and engaging them in conversation. Her life has changed from stay at home wife and mother to a woman that works, often leaving her daughter in the care of a close neighbour.
Anikka meets Roy McKinnon, a soldier who survived the war and published poetry. Now back in the beautiful Thirroul, Roy finds that the words he searches for just aren’t coming – until he meets Anikka. His shy offerings for the young widow offer up the hope of a new future but will Anikka feel the same?
There are some books that I just find very difficult to review. I sit and stare at my keyboard and the screen, look at Twitter, check my email for the three thousandth time, read a blog or two and come back to the review to find that still, I’ve only written 20 or 30 words. Sometimes the words just don’t come easily and The Railwayman’s Wife is one of these books. It’s not that I didn’t like it it’s just that I don’t know how to say how it made me feel without spoiling it.
This is a beautifully written book – it’s not a long one, coming in at just over 250p and author Ashley Hay has obviously valued every word. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Thirroul itself but my cousins and family live in close-by Woonona so I am at least familiar with the area, albeit in a more modern setting. The descriptions of what it’s like to take the train from the city, entering a dark tunnel and then bursting out to be confronted with the sea in all its glittering glory are wonderful and really put you in the novel. Likewise enough is given of Mac and Anikka’s easy relationship to paint a picture of their life – happiness by the seaside, blended with the smell and sound of trains. When Mac is lost in an accident, Anikka’s grief is not the sort that strips her of her ability to function – she still takes care of their daughter and begins a new job in order to support them – but it’s quite clear that she is deeply devastated by his loss and it colours most of her life.
She begins to interact with some locals as an individual now, rather than as one of a married pair and finds herself forming an easy friendship with Roy McKinnon, a local poet and a slightly less easy one with Dr. Frank Draper, a friend of Roy’s who stayed abroad after the war and has only just returned to Australia. Frank is haunted by what he saw after peace supposedly came as he was one of those sent into the concentration camps to begin attempting to heal the sufferers. He’s haunted by those who survived the whole war, only to die after he arrived and this makes him often blunt, confronting and unpleasant. Anikka seems to have a tolerance for him even though what he says does often bother her but she doesn’t avoid him or seek to end their interactions.
Roy soon develops feelings for Anikka although to the reader it never seems as though Anikka feels the same way (and here is where I struggle with what to say!). It’s hard sometimes, when you’re settled into a book expecting one ending and you’re delivered another, somewhat abruptly and I feel that’s what happened here with this book. It was a gentle, rolling read but yet when I finished it I felt quite flat and disappointed. Almost upset. The ending seems a little out of pace with the rest of the book too.
I think if this time period is of particular interest, or the setting or if you like trains (if you really like trains!) then this book will be very enjoyable and it might be easier to feel differently about the ending. But for me, quite often the ending is the part that makes everything come together, it’s the part that really underlines how I’ll feel about a particular book. And this one, I find it really hard to articulate that without getting into a very spoilerish discussion of the why. It’s also hard to rate this book – I wanted to only give it a 5 or a 6 but the writing is pretty fabulous so that pulls it up a bit to a
Book #86 of 2013
The Railwayman’s Wife is book #39 read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.