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

railway The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay


Review copy provided by publisher

Allen & Unwin, March 2013

 Synopsis- In a small town on the land’s edge, in the strange space at a 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.

Review- The Railwayman’s Wife is the latest novel by Australian author Ashley Hay. It’s set in the aftermath of World War II in Thirroul, a coastal town in the south of Sydney, Australia. The protagonist Anikka “Ani” Lachlan, lives a life of simplicity with a young family- husband Mack and 10 year old daughter Isabella- who has remained physically unscathed by the war.

Ani’s comfortable life is turned upside down when her husband, a railwayman is killed in a train accident. Shocked and overwhelmed by grief, Ani tries to rebuild a life for her daughter in these difficult circumstances. Ani’s widowhood though not unique in wartime, is somewhat excluded from the unofficial war widow community and she tries to make sense of losing her husband not from war but from one of life’s daily tragedies. Her husband’s employer makes arrangements for Ani to work at the railway’s library in Sydney and for the first time in her life she is the sole provider for her family. She takes pride in this job and experiences the social awkwardness of reconnecting with the community following the loss of a loved one.

Secondary characters add another dimension to the story such as Dr Frank Draper whose bitter and candid attitude to life doesn’t offend Ani and there’s the poet, Roy McKinnon whom she develops an easy friendship with. The grief that Ani experiences was well portrayed from awkward conversations with neighbours to discovering unknown details of her late husband’s life and the mixed feelings she has about learning aspects of his life from other people. Then there’s the brightness that Isabella adds to the scene with her positive and inquisitive approach to death and beyond.

This book is actually quite difficult for me to review because I have such mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it is written in a beautiful, lyrical manner like a book-length poem. But on the other hand I felt like I was standing on the shore watching the story unfold like the sea (see it even inspires me to write expressively). I felt excluded from the story, it just didn’t draw me in. The exploration of grief and loss was paramount to the essence of this story, but I wanted it to move past this… I wanted the story to go somewhere. At about three quarters of the way in I felt hopeful that Ani’s life was moving forward (and not just because I always hope for a romantic happily-ever-after) because the story seemed to be pushing forward but I closed the book feeling dissatisfied. It was as if Ani’s life came full circle and there was little emotional growth. I could connect with and understand the grief she experienced when her husband passed and I thought her role in the library was empowering for her position, but I wanted her to overcome or learn from this experience. In some ways Ani felt a little flat for me, because there weren’t many glimpses of her outside of her grief.

This is the kind of book that will likely get literary praise and I can see why because the narrative prose is certainly clever, but at the same time it’s these kind of books that leaves me feeling a little perplexed, perhaps even a little dense. I feel like I’m missing something. There’s literature that I really get and then there’s literature that just misses the mark for me… but I suppose reading will always be a subjective experience.

The Railwayman’s Wife is beautifully written and explores grief, loss and the complexities of love. I felt the story was anticlimactic and so its potential wasn’t quite reached.  It will likely appeal to literary fans and readers who are comfortable with vague- and not necessarily happy- endings.

Overall Rating


“It was okay”

The Railwayman’s Wife can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2013 challenge:



  • Interesting. This is the second review of The Railwayman’s Wife I have seen in the last few minutes. The other was quite a lot more enthusiastic as in they gave it 5 stars. I was already intending to read it, so it will be interesting to see where I sit in the scale of like!

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