The Railwayman's Wife
Ashley Hay
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Buy *The Railwayman's Wife* by Ashley Hayonline

The Railwayman's Wife
Ashley Hay
288 pages
April 2016
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Set in the New South Wales town of Thirroul, inspired by D.H Lawrence’s Kangaroo and the great war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, Hay’s novel is melancholy and lyrical, a sad love poem to the strangely beautiful land of post-war Australia where a mother and her daughter are bought to the brink of tragedy when the man they love unexpectedly dies. In chapters that move from the mid-1930s to 1945 and 1948, Hay cuts back and forth between Mac and Ani Lachlan, delineating the complicated bonds of love and marriage and a dependency that has bound them together in life and in death.

Mac’s sudden passing underscores Ani’s vulnerability and her need to keep connected to her 10-year-old daughter, Isobel. The accident is a catalyst, muffling the memories of their young life together before Isobel was born and Australia entered the War. For Ani, Mac’s death signifies all the perils of the world--the terrible things that can happen not just in the dark of night but in the midst of ordinary life and daily routine. First there’s a dreaded silence, then the local Minister and the railway officials arrive, telling Ani about the engine shunting and how Mac jumped down and went around to check the coupling. Ani blames herself for Mac's death, throwing herself into her daily chores, talking to Isobel and forcing herself to get up everyday to do the housework just to try to maintain some order in the world.

Then, out of this terrible well of despair, an invitation dangles like forbidden fruit: a job offer at the local Railway Institute’s Library, down by the station where Mac was violently killed. The librarian is about to retire, and Ani would be ideal for the position. Ani has made her home and nurtured her family, but this new job opportunity will mark “the comings and goings in the days” and perhaps symbolize a new beginning where Ani can now sleep alone in her bed.

As this silent cord acts like a fragile cobweb connecting Ani to Mac, Hay saturates her novel in color and life: the bright, sharp blue ocean and the green leaves of the trees, shiny and metallic. Like Ani, we too are bathed in its beauty and the changing combinations of shapes and shades, as well as the disparate medley of shadows that fall along this beautiful and isolated coastline. Ani assaults us with her memories, recalling how Mac wanted to be a poet and write about dolphins. Other chapters delicately alternate between Ani’s post-war existence and 1935, where Mac talks of his Scottish heritage, his love for birthday cake, and the family trip to Wollongong so that Isobel can finally have her favorite milkshake.

Strafing her story in a sort of magical lyricism, Hay highlights not just the love between Mac and Ani but also the private passions of poet Roy McKinnon, whose sudden blind infatuation sets up the misunderstanding that will shape the last sections of the novel. A returned soldier, Roy has recently come to Thirroul to live with his sister, Iris. Damaged and conflicted, Roy walks the streets at night while at day he jumps across the local jetty’s deepest stanchions and girders, its beams and old tracks and sleepers. Tired from his years in the war, Roy seeks inspiration at the Station library where he requests the Great War poets: “the ones who kept living, and kept writing.” Ani finds herself drawn to this quiet, sensitive man whose idea of romance is nurtured in his imagination. Roy wonders how long is it going to take to get used to being back in the world, and he hopes the slender rectangle of his anthology of poems, including his own from the war, will cajole him back into his vocation.

The other main character is Dr. Frank Draper, who emerges into Ani’s life when he drops off D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo at the library. Every time Ani sees Frank, he seems “loaded up with mementoes of dreams and of pain.” Just like Roy, Frank’s mood hovers somewhere between dark and bleak. Old mates from childhood, Roy reminds Ani that Frank was one of the first doctors to go into the worst German prisoner-of-war camps. “Spinning around at his words,” Ani never quite knows what to expect from Frank. He’s sometimes charming and then obnoxious. Even when Frank comes into the library with Iris, Ani detects an increasing dissatisfaction and a tentative suffering left over from his war years.

All three men--the railwayman, the poet, and the doctor--form an elaborate patchwork quilt that becomes threads of Ani’s life as time drifts and melds then slides sideward. From the Anzac Day celebrations to a Christmas Day lunch, to Mac’s spirit that pushes against Ani as if she could feel “the full weight” of his railwayman’s job, Hay writes a vivid sense of place where every tiny twist multiplies somewhere new. There is much to be said about loss in this gorgeous novel, a young widow grieving for her husband and a poem that has him returning and restored.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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