Book review: The People on Platform 5 by Clare Pooley

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Who among us doesn’t want a fairytale ending?

It’s a tough ask in a world more inclined to injustice, vest self-interest and cruelty, accidental or otherwise, but that doesn’t stop us hoping that in amongst all of the hellish loose ends, there might be a definitive moment when all the brass rings fall within our grasp and all the hope springing eternal we’ve employed leads to the sort of happy ending that would make Cinderella swoon.

While we wait for real life to cooperate with our vaulting, idealistic daydreams, we have gloriously uplifting, warmhearted and grounded novels like The People on Platform 5 by Clare Pooley (The Authenticity Project) which is honest about how challenging life can be but which offers the very real hope that maybe the ending doesn’t have to be as disappointing as life often seems to serve up.

This beautifully-written story, which rather audaciously dares to imagine what might happen if regular commuters on the same train line in London dared to actually speak to each other, is like a tonic for the soul because not only does it bring a number of lost big city souls into the kind of nurturing found family they all desperately need, but it does so in a way that helps them answer some big questions in their life and take some pretty positive steps forward.

It might all seem a bit fairytale-ish but is there really a bad thing? Not even a little bit; frankly I love the idea that you can find just the right people to help you, that they all end up overcoming any reluctance they have to form bonds with people they’ve only ever cursorily nodded at, and that they form the kind of supportive grouping capable of turning lives around.

“Today was going to be the day, thought Sanjay as he made his way to New Malden station to catch his usual train. The day he finally plucked up the courage to speak to The Girl on the Train. He’d even worked out what he was going to say. She always carried a book with her. A proper one, not a Kindle or audio book. It was one of the (many) reasons he knew they’d be perfect together.” (P. 11)

Talk about hope and expectation being answered … and then some.

The wondrously good thing about The People on Platform 5 is that for all the magic of the narrative, it also feels really down to earth and quite real.

Balancing that sort of realness with the feel-good sense that life can become miraculously better (though, to be fair not without some hard work and pain; there’s no wand waving going on here) is a feat in and of itself and it’s one Pooley manages impressively well, forming up in the process a story that feel accessibly honest even as it inspires you to dream and hope big.

Rather cleverly too, the way in which these characters come together is not instantaneous; rather they take a while to let down their barriers, to actually come around to the idea that not saying “Hi” to a fellow commuter but becoming involved in their lives isn’t a bad thing, and it gives The People on Platform 5 an emotional heft and substance that makes the ending that follows feel well-deserved and truthful.

In fact, so honest is this affectingly uplifting novel, that the author admits is based on some very real world issues that have directly affected her such as ageism in the workforce, bullying and the peculiarly awful grief of losing someone near and dear to you, that there are times when you wonder how the vividly realised characters are going to come out the other side.

Clare Pooley (courtesy Be Sober)

The answer, of course, with the unconditional friendship of the newly connected commuter group who find in each other a chance to face up to some very real challenges, the kind that are always easier to handle when you have others standing in the corner with you.

Take Piers, for instance, a hedge fund trader who initially comes across as a man in full control of his bombastically expressed and rather overblown life as a hardcore, take-no-prisoners denizen of London’s financial district but who, over the course of The People on Platform 5 is revealed as someone struggling with a slew of issues that do not match the impressions others have of him.

The key character of the group who brings Piers (known as Smart-But-Sexist-Surbiton) and others together including Sanjay (Too-Good-To-be-True New Malden), Emmie, Martha, Jake and David together is Iona (Piers christens her Crazy Dog Woman before he really gets to know her), a onetime IT girl of the Eighties and Nineties who, with the love of her life Bea, is a flamboyantly extrovert lesbian who works as a magazine therapist and a woman with a take-no-prisoners approach to bringing people together.

Well, once she decides to seize the commuting day and all that, where she reveals herself to be as formidable as suggested but with vulnerabilities and very real issues of her own which gives those she has formed into an unexpected family the chance to help save her right back.

“People boarded the train at all the usual stops along the line, but for the first time in months, most of the seats around her [Iona] remained empty. People walked towards her, but quickly diverted on seeing her face, sitting as far as far away as they could. Standing up, even, rather than face the old woman whose life was falling apart.

And nobody said a word.” (P. 199)

It’s this wondrously uplifting sense of love and unconditional support that makes The People on Platform 5 such a poignantly touching and funny book to read.

Pooley pulls no punches when it comes to how uncompromisingly difficult and awful life can be, but she does so in a way that doesn’t feel hopeless and which comes with a sense that it might be possible to find a way through.

The characters don’t always see it that way but then that makes sense; we can be so consumed by the difficulties and trials in our life that we can’t see if there’s any sort of way forward.

But there is a way, and The People on Platform 5 shines a heartening light on it, reassuring us that no matter how trenchant a problem might be or how far off a solution might be, that it is there somewhere and we can often find it and live it out if we only have the love and support of people around us.

To be honest, that sense of being enveloped in love and support is so profoundly present in The People on Platform 5 that it often feels like a great big warm hug; that’s not meant in any kind of flippant way at all but rather in the sense that being made to feel like you belong and matter is the one of the most powerful things you can do for anyone.

And while Iona definitely gets the train connections going, which admittedly will feel damn near miraculous to anyone who has ever caught a train in the big city, her unique initiative, borne from seeing Piers almost die from choking in their carriage, takes on a life of its own, transforming her life, countless others around her and reaffirming that sometimes all we need is for someone to say hello to us and the rest will, rather happily, take care of itself.

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