Tessa Hadley's "The London Train" begins near death and ends near birth, but with surprisingly little movement in between. There are two loosely linked tales here, joined where their central characters, Paul and Cora, meet on the train from Wales to London.
Paul, whose mother dies in the first pages, and whose granddaughter is born in the last pages, moves quietly through his narrative, a Teflon chameleon. When he's with his young daughters, he is a snuggling daddy. When he's with his reclusive intellectual friend, he is a quiet man of nature and ideas. When he leaves behind his small Welsh town -- and everyone in it -- to sleep for weeks on his older daughter's sofa in a rundown London flat, he's an underemployed drifter with ideas that he rarely pairs with actions. He lives on a fine line between being all things to all people and having a tenuous grasp on his own desires.
Cora, meanwhile, has separated from her husband and moved from London to her now-empty childhood home in Cardiff. She has, as her name suggests, a stronger core, so although she's been set adrift, her loveliness, insecurity and essential being tether her firmly to the world. Indeed, it's when Paul is with Cora that he seems most solid. Perhaps that's just more of his chameleon nature -- when he's engaged with a grounded character, although he makes her feel like she's flying apart, he becomes graspable.
Cora observes "Their relations were asymmetrical. She was the completed thing he wanted, and had got ... whereas she was absorbed in his life as it streamed forward, lost in him, not able to know everything he was." Her relationship with Paul affects her more than it does him, acting as a catalyst to assess her job, her marriage, the deaths of her parents. Paul is a rock in her shoe, while she is only visible out of the corner of his eye.
It is Cora's weightier second part of this novel that is the more engaging. You care about her story, because she cares about her story. She adds import to it all. Paul seems more passionate about the trees at the end of his garden than about his daughters or their mothers or his own mother. Hadley paints a brilliant geographic landscape around Paul, but it is at the expense of depth in his emotional landscape. He's too formless to hold the center of everything happening around him in his story. It's worth the wait for Cora's story, but frustrating to view Paul only as he is reflected off others.
Melanie Cremins blogs about books at dakimel.blogspot.com.