Ashley Hay has written a beautiful novel about a young, grieving widow in post-WWII Australia. The Railwayman’s Wife is short and to the point. Most of the characters are suffering from loss, and the intersections of these fragile, young people are what makes this book so good.
Ani Lachlan is the young widow. She has suddenly lost her husband and is numb, but she also has a young daughter and a sudden need to earn a living. Somewhat randomly, Ani is thrust back into the world as the local librarian. Although it feels strange to have a job and a schedule in the face of her grief, this is a good move for her.
The Railwayman’s Wife is particularly appealing and satisfying because it is set in the world of books. Ani’s library literally provides a welcome haven, as well as a point of entry back into the community. Throughout this lovely story, there are references to choosing books, poetry and reading aloud. In the face of terrible grief, books and reading provide sustenance. They also link Ani to her late husband, whose books and love of reading aloud help describe him.
I loved The Railwayman’s Wife for many of the reasons I loved Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies, which I previously reviewed. Both books have distinctive and somewhat unusual settings (Joyce’s Staten Island and Hay’s small coastal Australian town), which provide a strong background for their stories. They also revolve around recent, accidental deaths of young men and the families that survive them. The numbing shock of loss and uncertainty about how to behave are common to both books, as is the characters’ growing understanding of how they will proceed with their own lives and feel pleasure again.
I strongly recommend The Railwayman’s Wife, as well as Small Mercies. These are serious, appealing books that provide intelligent comfort and understanding in the face of traumatic loss.