The London Train – Tessa Hadley

I am going to do something today that I really tend not to do. Mind you when I asked you all for your feedback on Savidge Reads moving forward (and do feel free to fill in the form if you haven’t already) you pretty much all said you wanted me to do it and so I therefore hold you all responsible for what is coming. A negative review! I sort of find myself wanting to apologise for doing it before I have even begun, but hopefully (and I am sorry to the author who probably took months and months to write it and the publisher who kindly sent it) I will give valid reasons why and not just simply, which would be rather lazy, to slag it off. In fact really the person to blame for my dislike of ‘The London Train’ by Tessa Hadley is me… for finishing the thing frankly.

I think in all honesty I should have stopped reading Tessa Hadley’s at about page 70 of the ‘The London Train’ but what kept me going was hope and a little bit of faith in the blurb that it was ‘a vivid and absorbing account of the impulses and accidents that can change our lives’ and what kept me going, again from the blurb, that ‘connecting both stories is the London train, and a chance meeting that will have immediate and far reaching consequences for Paul and Cora’ those being our two protagonists. In fact it was the promise of Cora’s tale, in the second of what is really two novellas co-joined by the slimmest (and we are talking really slim) of moments that seems to be the longest one of the very few moments that any of the London trains get a mention, that kept me going as Paul’s story was not only boring me silly but becoming more and more ridiculous as it went on.

Credit where credit is due, I have no question that Tessa Hadley knows how to write and from the start she had me gripped. As ‘The London Train’ opens we meet Paul who by the time he gets ‘to the Home, the undertakers had removed his mother’s body.’ This had me full of intrigue and questions such as what did she die of, what was their relationship like, why was she in a home? All very promising and it continued to be, before she was soon buried and Paul’s ex wife was phoning him to tell him their daughter Pia had gone missing. Again I was intrigued and wondering all sorts such as were daughter and father estranged, why did his first marriage end, where on earth could Pia be, will this be a mystery? Yet when Paul finds her it’s the start of a ludicrous storyline, read no further if you don’t want any PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD until I say they have finished.

What followed was the most clichéd tale of Paul finding his daughter pregnant living a council (though apparently it was rebuilt, as if) high rise with her lover and his sister, not that there was any room, and after much secret visiting he suddenly moves in with them all after a row with his current wife Elise, leaving her and her kids behind and having some kind of jolly jaunt living a carefree poor hand to mouth existence aka middle class twaddle as the poorer people in London do not live like that. I was angry, what had started off as such a great book filled with promise had turned into something that simply made me peeved. But hey it’s certainly a reaction isn’t it?


This is where Tessa Hadley lost me and yet I continued in the hope that Cora’s promising storyline, a forlorn librarian leaving London for Cardiff and to the house she has inherited where she hears her estranged husband has gone missing, sounded really promising. But sadly, and fear not I am not going to spoil any plots of go on about why, this again started interestingly enough before swiftly alienating me as much as the first novella did. Again threads of storyline got picked up and thrown away, characters remained one dimensional, self-obsessed, a bit smug and all in all dislikeable. I know some dislikeable characters can be brilliant in novels, not these ones though. In fact I really shouldn’t have read to the end of Cora’s story because it made me even more annoyed with its triteness.

Naturally I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading ‘The London Train’ if it’s a book they really think they want to give a whirl, its certainly won over the judges of this years Orange Prize it just completely lost me. The writing was good, but sometimes that’s not enough, it doesn’t matter what revelations come at the end of a book or that there could be some promise just around the corner if an author alienates and looses its reader then it doesn’t really reach its target, and sadly it missed me by a mile or several of train line. 3.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Like I said there is clearly an audience for this book as before The Orange Longlist 2011 was announced (and reading the whole list from cover to cover as a challenge to myself was the main reason I persevered to the last line with this book) people were saying this would be on the list, and I have seen some rave reviews here and there, plus it got long listed by the judges as I mentioned so they must have all liked it in some way. The fact it got long listed and ‘Mr Chartwell’ didn’t is rather a travesty in my personal, and I happily admit often wrong, opinion. Is it my fault for persevering? Should I have just given up on it and moved on? Why do we have an ingrained gene to finish a book we start? Has anyone else read this or another Tessa Hadley and what did you think?


Filed under Jonathan Cape Publishers, Orange Prize, Random House Publishing, Review, Tessa Hadley

20 responses to “The London Train – Tessa Hadley

  1. I too read to the end however unpleasant/hard it is. I feel sort of guilty to stop halfway!

  2. Annabel (gaskella)

    It takes courage to write a negative review, especially of a book that has been raved about, so well done. I do think it helps to show that a blog has balance and dispels any hints of luvviedom between bloggers and publishers.

    I looked at this book and it didn’t appeal to me, so I won’t be reading it especially as I always live in hope once I’ve started reading a book that isn’t gelling with me that it’ll improve as I go through.

    • Though I get on with publishers and am thankful for their books they know full well if I don’t like something then I am either not going to review it, or I am going to tell the truth. I am hoping the odd negative review here or there will show people there is no ‘luvviedom’ here (love that word).

      I just cant review books I havent actually finished.

  3. this is second negative review read of this shame I love the cover and it would be one I d look at as I like trains and books set on trains oh well ,all the best stu

  4. I never used to write negative reviews but I have done so a couple of times recently and had some comments to say people were happy to have them. I do give up on books from time to time — life’s too short to struggle through to the end if you’re really not enjoying it. However since you challenged yourself to read the whole long list I suppose you were right to carry on.

    • It was only the fact that I had said, to myself and no one else, that I would read every word of the longlist that I continued onwards. Sadly it was to the detriment of the book and the author as you couldnt pay me to try Hadley again after this. Oops.

  5. Thanks for your honest and interesting review. This was a book I thought looked promising but I think it might not be for me.
    I usually try to battle on with a book if I think it might turn out ok but sometimes you just have to throw in the towel, especially if it upsets or annoys you to the point of spoiling your day.
    I agree with Harriet… as it was a challenge, you were right to persevere but it’s ultimately a personal choice and you shouldn’t feel guilty either way.

    • I don’t feel too guilty as I am hoping that people can see the blame was with me and the fact I didnt bond with this book in the way I would have liked to have done.

      Hopefully I also explained why it didnt work and the context of why too.

  6. Jo

    Interestingly I have read more than one similar review regarding this book. Sometimes that makes me feel better about a negative review. When it does not look like you are on your own.

    I am very wary about picking this one up now.

    • I think if you fancy it then give it a whirl. I am slightly amazed by all the positive reviews I have seen of it. I feel like I have read a completely different book.

  7. I gave up on page 70 so it was interesting to see that you quoted exactly the same page number!!

    • There must have been something about that particular page Jackie. I might have to go and have a look and see if anything particular set it off at that point… apart from boredom. Ha.

  8. Sugar

    I read this too, and I admired it more than I liked it. She’s clearly a talented writer but this story felt a little too cold and limp, and left me feeling depressed, thinking ‘this is supposed to represent ordinary lives and chance moments, so that makes me feel glum about life too’. Small descriptions were very good, but I didn’t like the characters and didn’t know whether this was deliberate.

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  12. Oh! Having saved your Orange responses until now (when I’ve finished most of the Orange books myself), and having seen our responses turn out rather similarly so far in what I’ve read through this morning, I’m so surprised to read your thoughts on this one: we’ve read it so differently! I was just debating this morning whether I would put this one on my own personal shortlist for the year. Nonetheless, I’ve wholly enjoyed reading your response. And now I’m curious to go and have a look at page 70, to see what both you and Jackie found so offensive there. ::grin::

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