I had never heard of the acclaimed author Ashely Hay, prior to reading The railwayman’s wife. An arresting cover image of a veiled woman above a misty seascape, overlaid with a deep, cranberry title, caught my eye durIng library shelving time. I picked the book up. Not unusual, I often finish shelving with a trolley full of maybes. Would this do for Mrs Jones? I wondered. Or Mrs Smith? I read the blurb on the back cover. A historical novel, Australian author, hmm…the book was ticking a number of boxes. Maybe I should read it first?
Yes, why not? I checked it out on my card and took it home.
The railwayman’s wife is set in Hay’s home town of Thirroul, during the years immediately following World War Two. Having survived the war in this idyllic setting, Anikka Lachlan’s life is shattered by a sudden, unexpected loss. Returning to the Thirroul at this time, is Roy McKinnon, a war poet and one time school teacher, who is struggling to come to terms with beauty after the violence and horror of war. As Roy struggles to find his voice. Anikka struggles to rebuild her life. Both find solace in the railway station’s library.
The novel unfolds through the third person viewpoints of Annika, Roy and Annikka’s husband, Mac. In addition to its shifting point-of-view, the narrative also switches between past and present tenses, giving the whole a dreamy reflective feel, that is in keeping with its themes of grief and loss. Not an easy book to write. Or read. But once into the groove, its clear, shining, cut-glass prose, lift the novel out of the ordinary. The railwayman’s wife is a homage to literature and, as such, is strengthened by references to novels and poetic works. When in the course of the novel, Roy McKinnon, writes a poem, I found myself consumed by writerly envy.
Not only can this woman craft can a good sentence she’s a poet too!
Turns out this wasn’t the case. Hay had a go at writing a poem and couldn’t quite pull it off. She went in search of a poet who was willing to write a bespoke poem and found it in the person of Stephen Edgar. Edgar’s poetry immortalises the voice of Roy McKinnon, giving the novel a delicacy that could not have been achieved through prose alone. I was not surprised to learn that since its 2013 publication, The Railwayman’s Wife has been awarded the Colin Roderick Prize. It also won the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize, was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin and Nita B. Kibble awards, and shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Prize.
In addition to writerly envy, I now felt a flush of librarian’s shame.
How had this writer escaped my notice?
As a librarian, I often have people come to the information desk and ask: what’s a ‘good book’? Here’s the catch: one person’s ‘good book’ is another person’s yawn-fest. To what subset of readers would I recommend The railwayman’s wife? It isn’t a plot driven novel. Indeed, there is a section immediately after the set-up where it may have been possible to stop reading. The urgency of the tale picks up once the friendship between Annika and Roy is established. Hay teases her reader with the possibility of a happy ending. Then brings us to a climax that is breathtakingly, shocking. I wouldn’t be recommending it to readers who like a feel-good story. The Railwayman’s wife is literary novel, rich in words, imagery and ideas, suitable for those who like to read prize winners and to members of book groups. It offers the potential for much in-depth discussion.