Atria Books, April 5, 2016.
The Railwayman’s Wife is a quiet, thoughtful novel set in the aftermath of World War II. In the small coastal town of Thirroul, in New South Wales, Australia, Anikka Lachlan lives with her husband Mac and ten-year-old daughter Isabel. It is 1948, and their lives are filled with the comfort and joy they find with each other. When Mac is killed suddenly in a railway accident, Ani and Isabel are devastated, uncertain how to carry on without him.
While the novel focuses on Anikka, there are also many well-developed supporting characters. Roy McKinnon is a poet who has returned to Thirroul after his time in the war, unsure whether he will be able to write poetry again in peacetime. He moves in with his sister Iris, who is struggling in her own way – during the war, she had a job and independence, which has now been taken away from her. Roy’s best friend, Frank Draper, has also returned from overseas. As a doctor, he stayed behind in Europe after the end of the war, witnessing the atrocities of the concentration camps and doing what he could to help – consumed with guilt that whatever he did, it was never enough.
All of these characters are struggling in the strange new world that has come after the war, trying to find a way to create a new story for themselves. Anikka, although distraught when receiving news of the war, was for the most part untouched by tragedy until her husband’s death. The novel questions our fatality – Mac chose not to fight in the war, yet he was killed at home shortly after. Roy and Frank are emotionally damaged by their experiences, but alive. The author reflects on the senselessness of death, regardless of war or peace.
Mac’s death brings Ani the opportunity to work at the Railway Institute’s library, giving her a sense of purpose and independence. She is uncertain of whether she can be capable outside of the home, but feels at peace in her sanctuary of books. Her job gives her the chance to interact with the people of her community in ways that don’t only revolve around her grief and loss. However, in her conversations with the townspeople, she learns information about her husband that she was not aware of – nothing too shocking, but enough to make her wonder whether she truly knew the man she married, or whether her knowledge of her husband was a trick of memory.
In the opening scene of the novel, Mac and Ani are searching through a junk shop for the perfect gift for Isabel’s birthday, when they come across a kaleidoscope. The optical instrument changes the way we see the world, and it acts as a metaphor throughout the novel. Memories, too, are always changing, depending on perspective, and Anikka must learn to appreciate the new facets of Mac’s personality that she is discovering, instead of allowing them to tarnish her own memories. She also begins to open up her view of the world to include new friends and unexpected feelings.
Roy is the poet in this novel, but whole sections of the book read like poetry – the language is lush and lyrical, almost painterly in its descriptions of the coastal landscape. Though there are several major incidents in the story arc, much of the drama is internalized by the characters, and the novel unfolds at a slow, measured pace. The ending is melancholy, and not as hopeful as I had expected, but tragedy is true to life. It is an exploration of love and loss, filled with vague, complicated feelings, as life often is. A beautiful book that I highly recommend be read slowly and savoured.
I received this novel from Simon & Schuster/Atria Books in exchange for an honest review.