The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay

A quick rundown… In a small village on the New South Wales coast, two men are trying to adjust to life post-World War II. Ani Lachlan is trying to adjust to a life she never expected to have.

Strengths: Beautiful imagery and a dreamy quality to it.

Weaknesses: Occasionally I was confused when the book changed time periods (pre and post war).

Why I read it: Received from Allen & Unwin and The Reading Room – thank you!

Pages: 250 (ARC)

Published: 2013

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Setting: New South Wales, Australia

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

I was first attracted to The Railwayman’s Wife because of the cover (shallow, I know). I liked the melancholy feel of the blonde woman looking over the rough coastline. (I also liked her hat). It seemed to me a book of longing, of feelings hidden and currents running under day to day conversation. This is exactly what I found on reading the book.

The Railwayman’s Wife is not an overly happy book. Given the time (post World War II Australia) and the setting (idyllic coastal New South Wales village), you would expect everyone to be jubilant. Unfortunately that’s not the case for the main characters. Ani Lachlan is devastated after tragedy hits her close family. Nothing is the same and she has to adjust to being many things she never expected to. Roy McKinnon was a happy teacher and poet before the war changed him. Now he can’t teach, can’t write and is locked in an aimless existence. Dr Frank Draper tries on the sidelines to help everyone in his own abrupt way, but doesn’t get very far.

The book reminded me somewhat of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, in particular the first section. There’s a dreamy, filmy quality of the book that puts a distance between the sadness of the characters and the reader. Ironically, it feels like a train crash – you can’t stop it from happening and you can’t stop watching (reading) it. I felt for Ani’s pain and Roy’s sense of futility, but not to a huge extent. The way the book is written in the present tense (something that I can find quite annoying) didn’t make it seem real or like it was happening now, but long ago, back on a day far away. The characters felt like characters, rather than real people.

The book has some lovely lyrical moments, often related to train journeys through tunnels and across the Australian wilderness. It’s a book to ponder the questions of moving on after grief (Is it possible? Should it even be attempted?) and adjustment to the unexpected. It doesn’t offer any resounding conclusions, but is a dreamy book to ponder love and loss. I would have liked a firmer plot, but the quality of the writing allowed me to visualise the events and characters in the book clearly so I could make my own conclusions. Probably best read on a train with time to spare to think about this life.

I read this book as part of Reading Matters’ Australian Literature month. Please do take part if you have the chance, as 50 pence will be donated by Kimbofo to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

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