Aussie Book Review: The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay

The Railwayman's Wife
My Rating:              4 / 5
Format:                  Uncorrected Bound Proof
                              courtesy of Allen & Unwin and
                              The Reading Room
Publication Date:   April 2013
Category:               Popular Fiction
ISBN:                      9781743314449
Imprint:                   Allen & Unwin
Extent:                    248 pages
RRP:                      AU$29.99                 

The Blurb

"...her characters are illuminated by an incandescent intelligence and rare sensibility – Don Anderson, Australian Book Review.

In a small town on the land’s edge, in the strange space at war’s end, a widow, a poet and a doctor each try to find their own peace, and their own new story.

In Thirroul, in 1948, people chase their dreams through the books in the railway’s library.  Anikka Lachlan searches for solace after her life is destroyed by a single random act.  Roy McKinnon, who found poetry in the mess of war, has lost his words and his hope.  Frank Draper is trapped by the guilt of those his treatment and care failed on their first day of freedom.  All three struggle with the same question:  how now to be alive.

Written in clear, shining prose and with an eloquent understanding of the human heart, The Railwayman’s Wife explores the power of beginnings and endings, and how hard it can be sometimes to tell them apart.  It’s a story of life, loss and what comes after; of connection and separation, longing and acceptance.  Most of all, it celebrates love in all its forms, and the beauty of discovering that loving someone can be as extraordinary as being loved yourself.

A story that will break your heart with hope.”

Summary and Thoughts

*Please note that this review is based on the uncorrected proof provided to me by the Publisher and that it may differ slightly to the final published version*

From the very first page of this novel, you are aware that something awful is going to happen.  Set in the “escarpment landscape that once enchanted DH Lawrence” the story and relationships unfold against the backdrop of the Thirroul railway station with its ever-present rumbles, growls and whistles as the trains make their way along the tracks.

Anikka (Ani) and Mac have lived in Thirroul for the last twelve years and have a ten-year-old daughter Isabel (Bella), whom they absolutely adore.  They’re a sweet family and their love for one another is clearly evident in the way it gleams off the pages.  Like most women of that era, Ani stays at home during the day, carrying out all the necessary duties involved in nurturing her family, while Mac, a railwayman, leaves home every day to earn a living for the family he loves.  Then tragedy strikes and Ani is overwhelmed with feelings of desolation as she tries to come to terms with the news that has just been delivered in the form of the Minister, Luddy the Stationmaster and the Railways man.

With an impressionable young daughter to raise, Ani is unable to outwardly indulge her sorrow for fear of tainting Bella’s young mind and she takes the reader on her inner journey of loss and pain, trying to comprehend how it is that Mac was kept so well-cocooned during war time (“I did not keep him alive through six years of the war for this”), yet one random act in peace time has now removed him from their lives.  Concerned for her future, the Railways man on behalf of the Railway Institute offers Ani a job at the station’s library and she accepts, as a means of sustaining her and Bella, even though this means yet more changes to come with the juggling of Bella’s care and dinner times.  As she tries to find solace in the cornucopia of books which surround her as well as through conversations with the patrons who visit the library, she continues to grasp at her memories of Mac while attempting to reconcile herself to a life without him and the reader lives in hope that Ani will find someone with whom to share the rest of her life.

Roy MacKinnon, once a school teacher, now insomniacal, unable to eat properly and just a shadow of his former self, has been back in Australia for three years but in that time, became somewhat of a recluse, preferring to stay away from the people he once knew as well as his sister, Iris.  Now, back in Thirroul and residing with Iris, we see a man damaged by the ravages of war and haunted by what he saw and did on those bloodied battlefields of death and destruction.  Once a poet, he continues to search for the words he found in the midst of that war, but doesn’t know how to get them back.  Unlike Bella’s colourful world as seen through her “dull cylinder with an eyehole at one end and a round dome of glass at the other”, Roy’s world is no longer, but while visiting Ani at the library, exchanging thoughts about their shared love of the written word and, through some conversations with Isabel, he begins to feel that perhaps he has once again found the colours leeched out by the dark world that imprisons him, and the reader hopes that this will be the last step in the restoration he so fervently seeks.

Frank Draper, a doctor and once very good friends with Roy, has also returned from the war in which he was confronted by the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.  Initially coming across as unapproachable and a bit arrogant, his life too is clouded with visions of those he couldn’t save.  Suffering with what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as we travel along with Frank, there is the underlying hope that when the dense clouds of warfare and the ghosts of those he couldn’t save dissolve from his memory he will finally remember the love he once felt for Iris.

Hope springs eternal in The Railwayman’s Wife as it explores the relationships between these three characters, their interactions with one another as well as the townspeople and, through Ashley Hay’s narrative mode, the reader closely experiences the psychology of their minds with the final chapters of the book delivering a sucker-punch which had this reviewer asking “why?”!

I will be the first to admit that I have quite capably put off writing this review for a number of weeks now, due to the difficulties I have encountered in trying to express myself in its construction without giving too much of the story away, and I hope I have succeeded.

While I initially struggled with the way in which Ms Hay shifts between past and present as well as the slow (albeit consistent) pace, but which admittedly lends itself to the atmosphere surrounding the characters and the town of Thirroul, this entire novel conveys so much more than words.  Her multi-faceted prose and complex sentence constructions are lyrical and the wistfulness of the novel flows off the page, evoking a shifting surface of emotion through the layering of the characters’ memories and remembered conversations in a beautifully rendered world reminiscent of an old movie.

Introspective, reflective and invoking rhythms of sympathy as we experience the pain of loss, feel the suffering that silence can bring and we travel on the unsettling journeys each character must make, this is a novel which could quite easily transcend the boundaries between popular and literary fiction.

I wish to thank both Allen & Unwin and The Reading Room for providing me with an Uncorrected Proof of this hauntingly beautiful novel.

A Little About the Author (taken from the Publisher's website)

Ashley Hay is the author of five previous books including Gum, Museum (with visual artist Robyn Stacey), and TheBody in the Clouds, her first novel, which was shortlisted for a number of prizes including categories in the Commonwealth Writers’ prize and the New South Wales and West Australian Premier’s Awards, and long-listed for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

A former literary editor of The Bulletin, she contributes to a number of publications including The Monthly, Australian Geographic, and The Australian, and her essays and short stories have appeared in volumes including Brothers and Sisters (2009), various issues of the Griffith Review, Best Australian Essays (2003), Best Australian Short Stories (2012) and Best Australian Science Writing (2012).

Ashley lives in Brisbane, Queensland.


  1. I think you've done a brilliant job of constructing a review without giving away any spoilers, so well done!

    1. Kathryn, thank you for that lovely comment. You have no idea how much joy it gives me when I hear things like that from authors/readers. I, for one, try my best not to give away the plot in a story because I know how much I hate it when, after reading a review, there is no need for me to pick up the book.


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