This novel comes self-proclaimed a thriller, which makes you think the readers of such books are a patient lot. There are some thrills, yes, but they need a lot of plodding to get there. So many words for rather meagre returns.
At the beginning great deal of time is spent on the logistics of Peterborough station, where much of the action happens, and I diligently paid attention to this, since the title of the novel signals its importance. And yet I was left with that rather itchy sense that not comprehending gives you. After all that effort I still wasn't sure whether platform seven was to the left or the right or quite how you got to it. Oh well.
The platform is significant because a man steps off it to his death under a freight train. Not nice for anybody, the man himself who quite quickly seems to know little about it, and the railway workers who have to deal with it. The narration is in the first person, by a ghost, who a year or two before met a similar fate. Or did she? No doubt she was run over by a freight train but how it came to happen is the subject of the book. The ghost doesn't know; she is trapped in the station, can move around there, but can't go outside or communicate with anybody. Except on a rare occasion. Gradually she gets to be able to go further afield, and somehow knowledge of the past comes back to her. She remembers falling in love with a gorgeous man, handsome, clever, doting. He was a doctor, and she also remembers that he was controlling, demanding, with a habit of gaslighting her and managing to put her in the wrong whatever she did. He would accuse her falsely, and bring even more charges against her if she objected. And then express his adoration.
It's a technique we have had brought to our attention lately, and one that it seems impossible to deal with. Doughty give us the full detail, in dialogue, of many of the occasions when Matty treats Lisa thus. I think we might have got the message the first several times. I felt a bit guilty thinking this; if men are going to do this shouldn't we bear the full brunt of looking at it? On the other had it's repetitive to the point of boring and does not add to the shapeliness of the novel.
There are some nice moments, as when she makes a trope of the commuters sitting staring vacantly at the electronic display as though waiting for answers. And there are some observant phrases. Lisa looking back at Matty recognises that possessiveness is not love. She remarks that a ghost is someone's past trapped in an eternal present. Looking at the commuters rabbiting about the station she thinks that we carry on with life in the face of the inevitability of death. Well, not much choice, unless you do as the platform seven man of the beginning of the book, whose ghost is for ever trapped in the hell of that terrifying moment before he steps under the freight train.
One of the pleasures of this genre is that justice is done and good if it doesn't triumph at least is recognised. I'm not sure about that in this case. Lisa does get her answers, though her future doesn't seem very easy. But she is grateful for having had a good life, and for the love of her parents and friends; her ambition is to convince her mother of that. And Matty, having doted on a few more women, seems to come to a suitably unpleasant end.
- Marion Halligan is a Canberra author.
- Platform Seven, by Louise Doughty. Faber & Faber. $29.99.