Review: Gretchen Shirmon Ashley Hay

As if the sea curved up: The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay

One of the strange contradictions of fiction is that immense beauty can often be found in writing about grief and loss. The things we often choose to look away from or avoid in everyday life can, in the hands of a novelist like Ashley Hay, become rich terrain.

Set in Hay’s home town of Thirroul on the coast south of Sydney in 1948, The Railwayman’s Wife centres on the death of Anikka Lachlan’s husband in a mining accident and examines how Ani copes in its aftermath. Ani’s life intersects with the lives of other characters in the town, including Roy McKinnon, a war poet recently returned from the front, who now has difficulty finding any words at all to say about the world he has returned to, and Frank Draper, a doctor who is bitter from his exposure to the horrors of war and is struggling to allow love back into his life. The novel is narrated by these three characters, each of whom, while living in the present, is preoccupied with past events. Interspersed throughout the novel are also passages narrated by Ani’s dead husband, culminating at the point of his death.

Though the novel essentially belongs to Ani, the railwayman’s wife of the title, the lives of these three characters overlap beautifully and, by the novel’s conclusion, the influence each character has had on the lives of the others becomes clear. The book’s pattern is established early on: one character’s experience is later observed from another’s perspective, as in the scene in which Roy hears sobs coming from the greiving Ani’s house on a night walk he takes during a bout of insomnia. Personal experience is thus transformed into story in the way other characters interpret what they have seen. The link between the characters is also thematic. Each is asking him- or herself: what sort of living can be done in the wake of a traumatic event? This shared concern defines the book, which explores the idea that while we all live distinct internal existences, we experience many of the same emotions. Somehow, remarkably, we are all united by love and loss.

The Second World War hovers around the edges of the novel. Though it is not the book’s explicit subject, its consequences are still being felt by the characters. The war, observes Ani, is not something that can be turned off ‘like a tap’. Yet its lingering effects are also depicted as being somewhat inchoate and inexpressible. As Roy tells us, perhaps ironically for a war poet, ‘there are some things you can write about, and some you have to leave alone.’ This is echoed later in Ani’s observation that the more we hear about the war’s atrocities ‘we understand less and less of how it could possibly have happened.’

The Railwayman’s Wife is not a plot-driven novel, which is not to say it is wanting for a story; ideas occupy the pages of this novel, rather than action. Hay ploughs her subject matter for meaning. She does not overload us with material, but wrings it for its worth. For much of the book, Ani is living with the consequences of her husband’s death and the questions it raises. How will she integrate her love for and memories of her dead husband with the fact he is now gone? How can she continue to provide the love her daughter needs, while allowing herself time to grieve? At her husband’s funeral, Ani reacts against the old expression ‘time heals all wounds’, telling herself instead, ‘There were some things you carried and carried.’

Similar concerns preoccupy Roy and Frank – how can they continue living having suffered through the war? Roy, on the one hand, carries his immense sadness within him and is unable to do what he loves; Frank, on the other, vents his bitterness on those around him, whose small town lives were sheltered from effects of the war. In this way, Hay juxtaposes Ani’s small, personal loss with larger scale tragedies – ‘there are different kinds of loss,’ Ani says – and the novel seems to be asking us to consider whether there is any way of understanding the world other than at a personal level.

The Railwayman’s Wife is constructed scene upon scene, without the feeling of rushing that sometimes comes with more action-driven novels, and Hay’s writing is often beautiful, as in this shimmering sentence: ‘The paleness of her hair is so uniform that she looks as if she’s been lit from above.’ There are also many small, delicate observations about how to lead a good life, such as when Ani reminds us that one of life’s greatest pleasures is in ‘feeding a child – no-one ever tells you that’. It is almost as if Ani’s grief brings the smaller details of her life into closer and more acute focus. For much of the novel, she cannot find the words she needs to express her feelings about her husband’s death, but she can describe the world around her beautifully and, ultimately, this is the reason she prevails.

Hay gives us a wonderful sense of her home town, perched above a throbbing mass of sea. Although she alludes to D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo (1923), which Lawrence wrote during a stay in Thirroul in 1922, its legacy is not stifling. Through her descriptions, Hay claims the town as her own. There is something distinctive about its location, overlooking the ocean, yet in close proximity to the destruction wrought on the surrounding cliffs by coal mining. In this interface between nature and the terrible progress of man, Hay finds an apt symbol. The landscape speaks to that particular moment in history at the conclusion of the Second World War when man’s aptitude for destruction was most apparent: it has been ravaged by mining, the same way that some of its inhabitants have been emotionally ravaged by war and loss. The novel’s descriptions of the physical world thus seem to take on dark implications. It is hard not to read about the ‘hellish-red gates of the coke ovens’ without thinking this could easily be a reference to something else.

The ocean also plays an important symbolic role. Hay writes:

There’s some trick of perspective in this place, as if the house, the road, the grassy verge beyond were set below the level of the water, as if the sea curved up, the horizon above the line of sight and the water at any moment, about to cascade down.

The ocean thus becomes a dual metaphor for grief. It is a constant presence, a looming mass that threatens to overwhelm those who live beside it, but it also transforms what it touches. Like the lives that continue after loss, it ‘rolls and turns’. It will not stop, nor will the lives of those who live by it, although in moments of grief the characters may sometimes wish it would. Part of the symbolic significance of the ocean here has to do with the way water changes everything with time – ‘the pylons polished to smooth silver wood by the coming and going of the sea,’ for example. It is a force that both destroys and renews.

The novel is written in the third person, but drifts between the perspectives of its three main characters and that of Ani’s lost husband. Never do we feel distant, though, from the story we are being told. This is because the novel is told predominantly from Ani’s point of view, anchoring us to her, but allowing us the freedom to move beyond her perspective into the minds of the other characters. It also helps that the novel never loses sight of its key preoccupation: finding a path out of grief. It is no small achievement that Hay carries this omniscience off: it would be very easy for us to doubt the authenticity of the narrative voice as Hay moves fluidly between different points of view.

Like all skilled novelists, Hay knows what to leave out. When we learn of the death of Ani’s husband in a shunting accident, we are not given the details. It is enough for us to know that the body needs to be cremated and that those who bring Ani the news do not want to her to have to see it. And although the book has considerable emotional heft, Hay does not make the mistake of describing emotions. Instead, she lets the characters speak through their actions and reflects their states of mind in her descriptions of their surroundings. When Ani learns of her husband’s death, she says, ‘It would be easier if some part of the house had collapsed, if there was some destruction to see.’ The indirect mode of expression is not a mere stylistic choice, but an indication of one of the novel’s crucial concerns: how do we confront loss in our lives, without also destroying ourselves? It is no accident that Roy McKinnon, who writes directly about the war, is the most damaged of the book’s characters.

Until I found the book’s rhythm, I found the time shifts in the novel disorientating –  both the internal flashbacks of the characters and the passages narrated from the perspective of Ani’s husband, whom we know to be dead. But this malleability of time is intentional: we are told on the first page that this could be ‘any day, any year’, and the book does have a timeless quality. Hay allows us to inhabit her novel the way we might pass through a dream; it requires our willingness to surrender to wherever it might take us.

When Ani takes a job at the library to distract herself from her grief, another thread of meaning is woven into the narrative. The library is a place where stories are read, loaned and discussed, and Ani finds that she has a talent for matching people with stories. Astute readers will also pick up on references to literary texts peppered through the novel, such as this veiled reference to Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I’ve often wondered if paradise might not be a little like a library’; Jane Eyre (1847) is another frequently referenced text. The library patrons carry the stories of the novelists they read inside them as intimately as they carry their own. Who does a story belong to? Hay seems to be asking. The person who tells it, or the person to whom it is told? The answer appears to be both. What can be found in stories is immense solace, the ability to understand life at a deeply personal level. When Ani comes across a poem, which she reads ‘taking in whole lines in a gulp’, she assumes it has been written for her by her dead husband. It has indeed been written for her, but it is only at the novel’s conclusion that we discover its author.

Hay is developing an interesting preoccupation with threes. In her first novel, The Body in the Clouds (2010), an account of three separate lives – that of the First Fleet astronomer William Dawes, a man who witnesses the novel’s central incident, and another to whom it is told – is woven around a single moment in which a man falls from the Sydney Harbour Bridge and survives. In The Railwayman’s Wife, too, the central narrative is seen through the triple-lens of three characters. There is a sort of mathematical precision to the way these three perspectives work together: the implication is that if we look at something from three different directions, perhaps we can see its truth. This technique of allowing events to be seen from different perspectives also gives weight to the idea that a person’s life is a multidimensional story that is understood in one way by the person who lives it, and in another way when it is observed and interpreted by others. The novel is concerned with three different ways of coping with trauma, but the rule of threes is also apparent at a sentence-by-sentence level – as in the phrase ‘sleep long, and sleep well, and sleep soon’, for example – which helps to give the book its lulling rhythm.

Ultimately, it is Ani and Frank who are able to navigate their way through their grief. Ani finds solace in story and Frank Draper by surrendering to love. They are able to discover new ways of living. But Roy McKinnon, in his effort to define what happened to him in the war, seems to have been permanently harmed by it. Ani and Frank eventually find a way to understand their losses, just as the world is eventually able to move out from the shadow of the war, to reflect on the meaning of the conflict and tell stories about it. The key to the novel is the notion that it is only through narrative that we can understand ourselves at a personal level and that, through this process, can we come to terms with the world. This is the uplifting message that surges through The Railwayman’s Wife and out of the experience of loss. It shows us that not all stories about grief are desolate, that somehow, in finding a way to travel through these difficult emotions, people are capable of great things. This sense of hope is conveyed in one of the novel’s concluding sentences, aptly reminiscent of Hemingway: ‘somewhere in the world, the sun is always rising’.