I tucked my hands into the pockets of my cardigan and pulled it around me in a hug as I set out for my walk. The sun was low in the west, the air nippy. I wandered into Central Square just as the City Hall clock above me struck seven. Crossing the street, past the noisy tavern on the left of the sidewalk, and people enjoying conversations and dinner al fresco on the right, I arrived at Rodney’s. The bookstore is an institution in Cambridge, MA. It sells used and rare books with a fast-changing inventory. I made a beeline for the New to Rodney’s table in the center of the store.
The sea had depressed Huda ever since she was a schoolgirl, bent eagerly over a drawing of a Phoenician princess walking with her prince beside the sea, while their dog played with a shell. The creature that lived in the shell had dyed the dog’s mouth a purple color that clashed with the blue sea. She had written below the picture, ‘The color purple was discovered in the city of Tyre. Tyre is a Phoenician city situated on the Mediterranean Sea, like Beirut.’ Then she took her crayons and gave the prince and princess the most beautiful clothes, and colored the world around them like rainbows mingling with the blue of the sea, but instead of being happy that she had finished her homework, she felt a pain, different from when she had a toothache or grazed her knee: it began in her throat and descended into her belly, because the world and the colors she had drawn on the sheet of paper were what she longed for, unlike her house, empty of color and pictures and music. The pain attacked her throat and she felt as if she was suffocating because she would never walk by the sea like this prince and princess and their dog, never set eyes on its blueness or the lovely colors of the prince and princess’s clothes except in her dreams, and only then if she dreamt in color and not in black and white as usual.
I first went to London as an undergrad, on a yearlong study abroad program in University College London’s intimidating English department. When I returned very reluctantly to the US, I often dreamed about London, but in those dreams I would find familiar places moved, distorted, and the people I missed not where I looked for them. After graduation, I moved again to the UK for a master’s program, but mainly to get back to London. I had discovered, after a few panicky weeks of foreign disorientation, that the city suited me—and also that my quiet home in Massachusetts no longer did. At 22, one seemed to preclude the other; London felt strange and exotic in a way that had become a daily necessity.
William Hogarth (1697–1764), the eighteenth-century English artist known for his satirical views of contemporary life, first published The Four Times of Day engravings in 1738, based on paintings completed two years earlier. Although some of Hogarth’s other series profess a moral, the intent of these works was to portray humorous caricatures of contemporary figures. The images are rich in detail, providing a glimpse into the world of 1730s London.
I was looking for a light blue raincoat. The bulbs were dim and the ceilings low. At Heathrow Airport’s Passport Control Center, the line of my fellow arrivals amassed in clumps, passengers slouching and scratching away the hours of cramped flight, fingering their cell phones and sleepily eyeing watches. There were browns, blues and starched whites—sweaters, jerseys, overcoats and t-shirts. But no light blues. Not a raincoat in sight.
A novel’s content is inextricable from the experience of its presentation: the order of events, what the reader knows about characters, whether the reader is looking ahead toward consequence or backward for explanation. In Tessa Hadley’s Orange Prize-longlisted The London Train, by the time that Cora, the estranged wife of a high-ranking British civil servant, experiences the “physical closeness” of her seatmate between Cardiff and Paddington Station, “mingled with her awareness of herself, as if there’d been brandy in the coffee they drank,” Cora’s is not the only awareness which Hadley has altered.
Initially, The London Train may strike readers of domestic realism as known territory. Paul, a literary critic who would have preferred to be known as a novelist, has received news of his mother’s death. He arrives at her nursing home too late to view her body, a fumble that will come to seem characteristic as the funeral and aftermath illuminate him and his family through their response to crisis. The funeral also occasions contact with Paul’s ex-wife, who is concerned about their elder daughter, who has left university and will divulge only that she is safe and has moved in with friends.