Contains some mild and possibly helpful spoilers
Platform Seven by Louise Doughty is an incredibly ambitious novel. At its most basic, it is an exploration of a coercive relationship, but it has plenty to say about the value of life and the lives of individuals and the communities in which they live and work. Most audaciously, the narrator is dead, which makes Doughty literally a ghost writer. There are times when the resulting book rivals anything else I will read this year, and even when the novel stumbles there is plenty to consider.
The plot falls into four main phases. The first sets up the concept, with the ghost of Lisa Evans hanging around Peterborough station. We don’t know why she is there (she can’t remember) or what she can do: her boundaries are both well- and ill-defined. She can’t, at the start, leave the station nor can she really interact with the living. We are intrigued, and we learn heaps about what really happens behind the scenes and what the lives of the station staff are like. Doughty doesn’t need to spell it out but she uses Evans’ ghostly nature as an elaborate metaphor for the human spirit. Evans is an engaging and witty narrator with matter-of-fact views about relationships and slightly self-deprecating remarks about cornflakes and Ryanair. She comes across as a perceptive and articulate everywoman, and we like her and the majority of the other characters. If the ghostly rules of engagement aren’t exactly defined, Doughty has some parallels to do with time-bending (when the clocks go back and forward) or dawn blurs into a new day. It’s not entirely convincing – unlike the accounts of the working of the station which seem utterly realistic – but it’s charming and we’re more than happy to go along with it.
But by the end of the second phase, the what has been set out, even if we don’t know the how and the why. We realise that the link between Evans and a suicide victim is not quite what it seems. Evans has realised that her former boyfriend, Matty, is responsible for her death. The third phase explores the relationship between Lisa and Matty. We know Matty is not a good man, which in some ways blunts the description of coercive control (by the time each episode of abuse occurs we’re already braced and waiting) but which leaves Doughty free to consider other types of power in relationships, including the ever-harrowing subject of child abuse. (Doughty tackles it extremely carefully: indeed it is not really described though the consequences for the victims are.)
There are some really biting moments here. Lisa’s own personal philosophy is to embrace contentment – she was quietly happy before Matty’s arrival and there is an undercurrent through which we are asked why we tolerate the Matties in our midst. (And we are shown how to spot them.) Lisa didn’t have the measure of him at the time, but now says, of the moment the police tell him of her death,
He believed himself to be a man who, through no fault of his own, had suffered a terrible bereavement.
A sentence that works on so many levels it is practically a multi-storey car park.
Finally, Doughty wraps things up. By that I mean that she explores how different characters have reacted or will react to the various events of the story. That might sound a bit basic, but Doughty makes it anything but. Despite the supernatural elements of the novel, Platform Seven is all about people making sense of their surroundings or situation, getting on, getting by, following a path or designing one for themselves. The range of characters before us is carefully assembled and we watch them all search for the thrilling within the mundane. Lisa herself needs to come to terms with her situation but the denouement doesn’t quite work for me. I am not sure why. Lisa absolutely owns the right to make the decision she does, and it’s in character. If pushed, I think it is because her declaration about it is triumphant which is understandable but jarring. I wonder if that’s what Doughty had in mind: to make us realise that we judge the outsider, the sad-hearted and even the dead. Instead of rushing to criticise, we should take joy in the vibrant and vivid colour of carrots.
I really liked Platform Seven. I think you have to be prepared to engage with it and you won’t agree with it all. But it’s definitely worth a go. And you’ll always look out for Peterborough on the railway map.
Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.