Review of “The Railwayman’s Wife” by Ashley Hay

This unusual story is set in 1948 in the town of Thirroul (a suburb of Wollongong around 45 miles south of Sydney) on the Illawarra coast of New South Wales, Australia. It features a small cast of characters, mainly Scandinavian Anikka (“Ani”) Lachlan and her Scottish husband Mackenzie (“Mac”), who works for the railroads. At the very beginning of the story, just after Ani and Mac’s daughter Isabel turns ten, Mac dies in a train accident. But he continues as a main character and narrator with the chapters alternating among narrators and time periods.

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The other central characters are the wartime poet Royston (“Roy”) McKinnon, his sister Iris, and Roy’s best friend – the town doctor Frank Draper.

The main thrust of the book (besides the beauty of the area) is the question of how to deal with personal loss, and how, by contrast, the massive casualties of war experienced by soldiers and witnesses can be conceptualized.

Ani was especially offended by Iris’s trite assurance that time heals all wounds, thinking:

“. . . no — I hate that phrase, hate it. All the forgetting in it, all the ignoring, the papering over, the covering up, the pretending.”

But in reality none of them, including Iris, can totally paper over the past nor avoid the pain of loss. And as the stories of Ani, Mac, and Roy converge, it seems that sometimes, the inexorable grind of harsh reality and the impersonal cruelty of fate can vitiate ones’ best efforts to realize happiness.

Discussion: In one of the more interesting aspects of the story, the personas of Mac and Roy, and what happens to them, overlap quite a bit. As one example, although Roy is “the poet” of the town, Mac is himself a bit of a poet, telling Ani of their meeting:

“The first time I saw you . . . it was just getting light. I took you for part of the sunrise.”

Roy, who published a poem during the horror of war but feels without inspiration in peacetime, is similarly inspired to wax poetic around Ani.

There are other correspondences between Mac and Roy that would spoil the story to mention, but this convergence definitely adds an intriguing flavor to the story.

Evaluation: I was surprised by this book, and appreciated the many symbolic elements as well as the clever overlap of characterization, but much of it dragged for me. There were just too many descriptions of the terrain; a rather bleak tone weighing down the story; and in the final analysis, not much to provide any uplifting respite from the heavy emotional weight carried by the characters.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Atria Books, 2016

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3 Responses to Review of “The Railwayman’s Wife” by Ashley Hay

  1. Descriptions can definitely drag a story down. I think I’ll pass.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    Overly descriptive writing can keep me from getting lost in a story. I wonder if I’d get the symbolism.

  3. Beth F says:

    Argh. I’ve been on the fence with this one and now I’m starting to think I may pass.

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