It could be any day, any year: call it 1935, 1938, 1945, or somewhere decades in the future…Whenever it is, Anikka Lachlan is reading, swallowed by the shapes and spaces made by rows of dark letters on pale paper. She wets one finger, not slowly, but absently, and moves it to turn the next page.
Ani Lachlan, her husband Mac and their daughter Isobel, live in Thirroul, on the Australia coast. Mac works on the railway line and as the novel begins, we see Ani and Mac take the train to Sydney to find the ‘something magical’ Isobel has requested for her tenth birthday.
The birthday arrives and – as part of the family ritual, ‘the present, the cake, and always an excursion’ – Isobel is promised a trip later in the week to Wollongong for chocolate milkshake. On the day, there is an accident on the train line and Ani and Isobel are unable to go and meet Mac, instead returning home via the beach to wait for the line to be cleared and Mac to get back.
And then a black car arrives at the gate. The irony of Mac not having fought in the war due to the need to keep the railways running is not lost on Ani.
Keep us safe, she’d thought, over and over, keep us safe, through the next six years. As she watched women becoming wives without husbands, mothers without sons, Ani had an image of a searchlight sweeping around, illuminating this woman – widowed; that one – her son drowned on a ship.
Now that searchlight has found her, catching her in its sweep and pining her, arbitrary and irrevocable.
One of the results of Mac’s death is that Ani has to take a job. As the current librarian is retiring, she’s offered the post at the Railway Institute’s library. It’s here that Ani’s story becomes entwined with that of Roy McKinnon.
Roy McKinnon was a soldier in the war. We have our first glimpse of him on Isobel’s birthday when she, Mac and Ani are at the beach:
‘Looks like there’s someone sitting up there on one of the poles.’ And the three of them pause, peering ahead, the sun warm on their backs as they separate the shape of a man from the shape of the weathered wood.
‘You know, I reckon that’s Iris McKinnon’s brother,’ says Mac at last. ‘One of the drivers said he was home. You remember, love – he’s the one published the poem during the war. We took it round for Iris, do you remember?’ He shades his eyes, more of a salute than anything to do with the glare. ‘Wonder what he’ll do now he’s back here? Not much call for a poet in the pits or on the trains.’
Unsurprisingly, the war’s broken Roy McKinnon. He’s haunted by the thoughts of the men he killed and it’s left him distanced from others, unable to return to the teaching he once loved and barren of words for poems. He’s come to Thirroul three years after the end of the war as it’s where his sister lives and it’s where D.H. Lawrence wrote his novel Kangaroo. ‘If Lawrence could write here, he figures, maybe I can too.’
The Railwayman’s Wife considers the power of love and the power of stories, but not in the way you might think. This is not a stereotypical story of love and redemption, it is the story of a woman grieving for her husband and learning how to keep going for the sake of her daughter. It is the story of a broken man trying to find freedom through words. It is a story about stories – those written and those told, those about the people closest to us that we aren’t privy to and that reframe who they are. This is a novel about discovery that isn’t afraid to give its characters realistic endings. Quietly powerful.
Thanks to Allen and Unwin for the review copy.