Amidst the strange, silent aftermath of World War II, a widow, a poet, and a doctor search for lasting peace and fresh beginnings in this internationally acclaimed, award-winning novel.
When Anikka Lachlan’s husband, Mac, is killed in a railway accident, she is offered—and accepts—a job at the Railway Institute’s library and searches there for some solace in her unexpectedly new life. But in Thirroul, in 1948, she’s not the only person trying to chase dreams through books. There’s Roy McKinnon, who found poetry in the mess of war, but who has now lost his words and his hope. There’s Frank Draper, trapped by the guilt of those his medical treatment and care failed on their first day of freedom. All three struggle to find their own peace, and their own new story.
But along with the firming of this triangle of friendship and a sense of lives inching towards renewal come other extremities—and misunderstandings. In the end, love and freedom can have unexpected ways of expressing themselves.
The Railwayman’s Wife explores the power of beginnings and endings, and how hard it can sometimes be to tell them apart. 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.
Hi Ashley! Welcome to Let Them Read Books! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.
Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for The Railwayman's Wife? How did the seeds of the story first take root?
I grew up on that piece of Australian coast, on the southern coast of New South Wales, near Thirroul–in the next town up, Austinmer – and had always wanted to set a story in its landscape; it's a pretty stunning combination of ocean and escarpment.
The story of the railwayman dying in an accident at work, and his wife being given the job of the railway institute librarian, was inspired by that of my grandparents; my father's father was killed in an shunting accident back in the 1950s. I'd also always been interested in trying to imagine a new version of that set of events, and when I sat down to begin, I found that the story belonged naturally in the place where it had happened, which was in and around Thirroul.
Are any of the characters in the novel based by real people?
The characters of the railwayman and his wife aren't based on my grandparents, although I had borrowed those events from their life to start the story – and I realised when I'd finished the book that I'd borrowed other bits and pieces, from their lives, and from other lives I knew of in that time and that place, to sort of bulk out the story's dimensions.
The idea for Frank Draper came from a conversation I had with the wonderful Australian poet Les Murray more than a decade ago: he was talking about the people he remembered from his own childhood in a small village on the northern coast of New South Wales, and he mentioned a local doctor who'd been involved in the liberation of the camps in Germany after WWII. I can remember Les saying very simply that the doctor had never been the same again after that, and the simplicity and the potency of that line stayed with me. I didn't know where a character built around that line might find a home, but because I was interested in thinking about life after war, he fitted very naturally into The Railwayman's Wife.
The only people who are tangentially factual, in a way, are D. H. Lawrence – who did live in Thirroul for about six weeks during the early 1920s when he was working on Kangaroo – and the doctor who knew him, and who'd known Yeats; the doctor Roy and Frank refer to in my book.
This novel tackles some pretty heavy emotional themes. Did you find it difficult to write about grief and the aftermath of war? Did you draw on any of your own personal experiences to bring such emotion to life on the page?
I did find it a very odd experience to kill off a perfectly lovely husband–and I was very superstitious about my own husband for a few weeks after I'd written that . . . as if I thought I might have put him into some peril by despatching of Mac. I feel very fortunate not to have lived through a time of enormous global conflict like WWII, but I think that can make those large historical events seem like very defined and delineated things: as if war could ever start on one day and stop on another. Of course the impetuses and consequences flow out in both directions.
I read a lot of different accounts of the war–there were some great books about the experiences of different women well away from any of the conflict zones as well as in them–and I read a lot of what I guess you could call "grief memoirs" as well. I was vey fortunate to be working on the book around the time that Joan Didion was publishing The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates was publishing A Widow's Story and Helen Garner was publishing her wonderful novel The Spare Room–so many books like those fed me while I was trying to think about Ani and her story.
And I think you always draw on your own experience as a writer, don't you, even if you haven't had to confront the exact situation you're imagining for your characters.
Which authors/and or books have had the most influence on you as a writer?
I'm not sure if I could claim these people as influences, but there are a handful of writers to whom I always return as a reader – and whom I admire incredibly in terms of their craft. There's Michael Ondaatje and the exquisite poetry he brings to everything from single sentences to the structures of his novels. There's David Mitchell, and the vast imaginative scope and reach of his fictional worlds. There's A. S. Byatt, who can bring ideas and research into her novels with such a light and elegant touch. And there's Helen Garner and the forensic detail and observation–combined with a ferocious kind of humanity–that she brings to her work, both fiction and non-fiction.
I come back to these writers again and again.
What are you working on now?
I hope I'm very close to finishing a new manuscript–a novel set in Brisbane (the Australian city where I live now) that follows the lives of two families–and particularly the mothers in both–through a single house: one around the 1960s and early 1970s, and one much closer to now.
Ashley Hay is the internationally acclaimed author of four nonfiction books, including The Secret: The Strange Marriage of Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron, and the novels The Body in the Clouds and The Railwayman’s Wife, which was honored with the Colin Roderick Award by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Australia, among numerous other accolades. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.
For more information please visit Ashley Hay’s website.
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