Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Wednesday, March 2, 2016: Maximum Shelf: The Railwayman's Wife


Atria: The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay

Atria: The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay

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Atria: The Lake House by Kate Morton

The Railwayman's Wife

by Ashley Hay

In this subtly radiant drama, Ashley Hay draws an intimate map of the bereaved heart against the picturesque backdrop of a seaside Australian town in 1948. If every person deals differently with grief, so, too, should novels; Hay uses moments of raw, overwhelming outward emotion in her characters sparingly in favor of rich inner lives and introspection.

Anikka Lachlan leads a quiet, wholesome life with her husband, Mackenzie, and young daughter, Isabel, in postwar Thirroul, New South Wales. Mac works for the railway while Ani keeps house. They are loving parents, "people who make a fuss of birthdays, people for whom no effort is too great in search of the perfect present." Although Mac came from Scotland, where "Around the turn of autumn, the turn of spring, the sky might light up with the aurora, sheets of grand brilliance," so many years have passed since he left that he has made a sort of peace with never returning. A native Australian, Ani is nevertheless a transplant herself, having moved to Thirroul with Mac from her birthplace in the distant Hay Plains "with its grasses as blond as her hair." Fond of their adopted hometown, still in love with each other after years of marriage, spared direct contact with World War II since the railway needed Mac to stay at home, the Lachlans have nothing but a pleasant future waiting for them.

Then the unthinkable happens, and Ani's life jumps off its rails. She imagines a "searchlight has found her, catching her in its sweep and pinning her, arbitrary and irrevocable," announcing to the world that a train accident killed Mac and made her a widow. She cannot escape the pain of the loss, waking to wonder "how late it must be for the sun to already be so high and then remembers, in the next instant, what happened the day before." With their daughter to think of, Ani has no choice but to struggle through her grief, "[a]s if she will ever care what anything is or isn't again." She accepts the offer of a job at the Railway Institute's library, one branch in a network that transports books to patrons via train. However, losing Mac continues to eat away at her heart.

Ani's compatriots in the land of despair are Frank Draper and Roy McKinnon, survivors of World War II's European theater who have only recently returned home to Thirroul. Frank, a doctor, wears his cynicism on his sleeve after participating in a concentration camp liberation, watching helplessly as many of the freed prisoners died, too far gone for medical help. Roy, a soldier, achieved some acclaim as a poet during the war but has returned with no words or inspiration, just insomnia and guilt because "Frank Draper could hold those five hundred souls on the knife edge of his conscience for as long as he liked, but it was nothing compared to seeing a man, and lining him up, and pulling a trigger, and watching him fall."

Hays lovingly constructs a rich snapshot of late '40s Thirroul, with its sea air, endless skies and thundering locomotives, which will leave American readers nostalgic for a place most have never visited. The charm of the setting makes her unpacking of the scars war left on its inhabitants feel gentler but still stands in stark relief, a reminder that war echoes into every corner of the world.

Hay's quiet, graceful prose acts as a translucent overlay for turbulent emotion, like glimpsing rich velvet through wisps of lace. While Ani breaks down when she hears of Mac's death, she then travels a generally subdued and realistic path of depression, losing her illusions of control over her life. Hay keeps a tight focus on Ani's struggle but allows for bright spots, too. Ani's growing friendship with Roy acts as a balm for both, and her position at the library also provides some grace. Through her characters, Hay includes many laudatory references to libraries and literature. Even before her employment, Ani thinks of the library that "[s]he could walk inside and step into a murder, a love story, a complete account of somebody else's life, or mutiny on the high seas. Such potential, such adventure--there's a shimmer of malfeasance in trying other ways of being." Characters look to literature to better their lives: Roy looks for meaning, Ani for escape. "You can find anything in a story if you look hard enough," suggests the retiring librarian Ani replaces.

The climax and ending are perhaps Hay's greatest coup, situations filled with such pathos that rather than shroud them in mystery, she leaves their pieces gleaming in the light for a reader to assemble ahead of the characters, then lets the reader helplessly follow events to their inevitable conclusion. Fittingly for the story, this finale surrounds a poem written by Roy--composed in real life by poet Stephen Edgar--that captures the grace and light of both Ani and her home, and the thought that anything as innocent and beautiful as these bits of verse could cause strife only adds to the juxtaposition of loveliness and grief at every turn. This thoughtful, elegant portrait of lives turned inside-out and finding the way forward from despair is sure to find a place in the hearts of its audience. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Atria Books, $26, hardcover, 9781501112171

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Ashley Hay: Tilting at Vast Things

photo: Nigel Beebe

Ashley Hay is the internationally acclaimed author of four nonfiction books, including The Secret: The Strange Marriage of Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron, and the novels The Body in the Clouds and The Railwayman's Wife, which was honored with the Colin Roderick Award by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Australia, among numerous other accolades. Hay lives in Brisbane, Australia, and recently spoke with us about the U.S. release of The Railwayman's Wife.

What inspired you to write this story?

I grew up one suburb up the train line from the book's setting, Thirroul, on Australia's eastern coast. It's a beautiful landscape, and I'd always wanted to set a story there. I also grew up with a grandmother who became the librarian at the Thirroul Railway Institute after her husband--my grandfather--was killed in a railway accident.

 

This story isn't their story--Ani and Mac are not real people--but I wanted to explore the idea of a widow in a compensatory job, and in a library, and just after the war. I think this was partly because my first novel--The Body in the Clouds--tried to tackle things on a large scale: a long span of time (more than 230 years); the colonization of a continent; the construction of a vast bridge; the size and speed of the modern world.

Even as I was writing that book, I was thinking about how I could try to explore big things--and war and grief would have to be two of the biggest--in smaller and more intimate ways, and how that different size and scale might change or direct a story. When I began, I found I didn't have a choice about where to set it: the landscape was a given.

What made you choose the library as Ani's emergency vocation?
I'd always known the story of my grandmother's life, but the moment I realized I wanted to try to imagine it as a novel was when I heard my dad talking, in the old library, about his own childhood memories of that place. In the middle of his talk, a train passed by outside, so very loud; so very close. I suddenly realized that my grandmother--or my character--would have lived and worked with the sound of the thing that had killed her husband, and that was when I decided I'd try to imagine this book.

And at a metaphorical level, I loved the library at the heart of the book. Like most writers, I think libraries are magical places, where you can enter so many stories, so many places--you can try on so many other lives. A large part of what my characters are trying to do is make sense of the world after war, after death, after change--they're trying to work out which stories to tell themselves about where they are, after where they've been. Having a library as the plot's focal point was a lovely way of bringing that to the front of the action.

I love that the characters have such passion for great poetry and literature.

In part it was about celebrating reading--as simple as that--and celebrating a time when many of our stories arrived textually rather than visually. In part, it was a very literal nod to that great Joan Didion quote: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." That's true, isn't it? We use stories to explain ourselves to ourselves and to each other, and knowing what someone's reading often gives you an extraordinary shorthand about who they are, or allows you to form a different kind of connection with them.

 

What made you want to explore the topic of grief?
I've been fortunate enough to grow up in an era without a world war--I was born in 1971. But I have a kind of historical curiosity about big, global events, like WWI and WWII, and the way we tell their stories as if they had start and stop dates and clear delineations. I was interested in looking at how history bleeds into life--of course so many people died during WWII, but people died afterwards as well. Would their deaths be differently experienced, or accounted for, somehow, given that they happened beyond the sort of expectations of that happening in war?

The hardest part about writing the death of a husband was working against a very strong writerly superstition that by setting down these words I was somehow tempting fate. (My husband, I hasten to add, has nothing to do with railways.) It was a confronting thing to kill a perfectly lovely man on paper and then walk around with an uneasy sense of my own husband's safety for a good few weeks after that....

Tell us how Stephen Edgar's poetry came to play a role in the novel.

The poem that Ani finds is really the crux of the book, so it had to be a potent thing, a thing with power and authority. I'd written a poem in my drafts but it didn't really do the work it needed to do--I'm not a poet. At some stage my Australian publisher and I talked about finding a poet to write the poem. A friend suggested Stephen Edgar--who I'd never met--and when I read some of his work, I found a perfect epigraph for the novel from one of his earlier poems. That seemed a good sign.

 

So I wrote one of the strangest e-mails I've ever written--explaining who I was, and what I was doing and what I needed, and Stephen said he'd give it a go. He asked me to send him the images from my poem that he'd really need to keep, and any notes I thought he might need. But he didn't want to read the manuscript.

I was at a writers' festival here in Australia when I got his poem, and I can remember opening the file and reading it on my phone--huge words on a tiny screen. I can remember bursting into tears. Because he'd caught so many of the ideas, the images, the sort of senses that I'd been trying to evoke in other parts of the book--without having read it. I felt as if I was hearing Roy's voice so clearly, and as if the whole book now had something solid at its heart.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

The book tilts at vast things like war and the randomness of accidents and the mess we can make of being alive, but I think it's actually a book about love. There's a lovely line we've used on different editions about discovering that loving someone can be as extraordinary as being loved. That's always felt like a good, big thing to say. --Jaclyn Fulwood

photos by Janette Warren


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