Saturday, July 09, 2016

The aftermath of loss: Ashley Hay's The Railwayman's Wife

Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife is a novel tailor-made for librarians and book lovers (like me) who enjoy literary fiction. Set in the Australian seaside town of Thirroul beginning in 1948, it navigates the emotional changes in a young woman, Anikka Lachlan, over the course of her first year as a widow.

UK & Australian cover
After her Scottish-born husband, Mac, dies in a railway accident, it’s suggested that Ani replace the librarian in Thirroul’s Railway Institute Library after her retirement. Ani has always loved to read – Jane Eyre is her favorite novel – and although her new work schedule disrupts her routine with her 10-year-old daughter, Isabel, she finds comfort in helping her fellow townspeople find the right books.

During this painful time, she develops friendships with some of her neighbors, including Roy McKinnon, who fears that his gift for poetry deserted him in peacetime, and Frank Draper, a doctor who can’t escape his past failure to prevent the deaths of recently liberated concentration camp victims. Ani is taken aback by Frank’s occasional brusqueness but comes to realize where it comes from.

This is a bittersweet, introspective novel that follows people’s search for hope and understanding even in the most trying circumstances. It evokes Ani’s feelings not only of loss also but of frustration at life’s unfairness, since she and Mac had come through years of war unscathed only for him to die tragically young anyway. It’s also understandably strange for her to spend her days surrounded by the sound of trains, one of which killed her husband.

US cover
Ani holds onto her memories of Mac, reflecting on the fact that they’ll have no more conversations with one another: “It still throws her to realize she’ll learn nothing more directly from her husband, only secondhand anecdotes about him. And such things can never be hers to claim.” Through others’ stories, Ani discovers a side to Mac she probably wouldn’t have ever known otherwise.

Chapters about their married life, but seen from Mac’s viewpoint, add to the story’s poignancy and originality. Through these sections – which feel shocking when first encountered, because one doesn’t expect to reach the minds of the dead – we learn how much Mac strived to make himself feel worthy of her.

The Railwayman’s Wife is too deep and multilayered of a book to offer simple answers, but eloquently describes how people seek their own paths out of bereavement and loss.

This was a personal purchase; I’d bought the UK edition (Allen & Unwin, 2014) back when it came out, before I heard that a US edition would be published (Atria/Simon & Schuster, April 2016, $26). This is my second entry in the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

For background on the story, see Ashley Hay's essay in Library Journal: Reading the Rails: How Australia's Historic Railway Libraries Inspired a Novel.

12 comments:

  1. Thirroul is one of my favourite places. A hamlet nestled between an towering escarpment and the sea. It sounds like this book is as dramatic as the scenery.

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    1. I'm embarrassed I hadn't come across Thirroul before in my reading, but it sounds like a beautiful, scenic place. Maybe one day I'll get to visit! The drama in the book is predominantly internal and psychological, but it's significant.

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  2. Definitely something I am now curious about. Great post!

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  3. I have this in my TBR pile. I thought this book was a romance, but obviously it is much more than that. Your review has piqued my interest. Bumping this one up the pile.

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    1. The book has a couple of love stories in it, but I agree, it's not a romance. I was worried that it would be an overwhelmingly depressing read because of its themes, but it has a hopeful aspect to it too.

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  4. I have never heard about this book but after reading your review I am adding it to my "to read " list!

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    1. Glad to hear it - if you decide to read it, please let me know what you think!

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  5. This sounds like a fascinating book. Once again I have you to blame for my increasingly-tall TBR pile! :)

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    1. I'd been curious about this book for a while and can see now why it's been getting a lot of international attention and acclaim. It's a thought-provoking book that made me wish I could see what happened to the characters after it ended.

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  6. If I were to say only that I am thrilled to discover your site, that would be a severe understatement. As a "fan" of historical fiction, I've stumbled upon a treasure. Now, though I could say much more about your current posting (which prompts me to go later this afternoon to my library), I will instead dive into your site and browse for a while.
    v/r Tim
    http://solitarypraxis.blogspot.com/2016/07/help-me-put-together-new-reading-list.html

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    1. Hi Tim, thanks so much for your remarks about my site, and happy browsing! Thanks for linking Reading the Past, too.

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