TO BE honest, Peterborough (where I live) is not an obvious place to set a novel. It does, of course, depend on the novel, and there are notable exceptions, such as Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother, or Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, the latter capturing in a hilariously funny and yet deeply sad way the life of some of the local immigrant communities that are a part of the life of this city.
So, if one were to write a novel set in Peterborough, where would it begin? There is, of course, with its fine west front, the magnificent cathedral, where Catherine of Aragon is buried and St Oswald’s uncorrupted arm was once kept. Yet, stunning and beautiful though it may be, the cathedral is not even mentioned in Platform Seven — perhaps a reflection of the fact that, although it is widely visible, for many of the diverse communities that make up this city it is not a place of shared identification and ownership.
Platform Seven begins and ends in a place that is shared by many, if not most, visitors and residents alike. Louise Doughty’s description of this prosaic gateway in and out of the city is both accurate and haunting: “Peterborough Station sits in the middle of England like a spider alert to movement, even when it appears hunched and still.”
And so we enter Peterborough Station, with its recently built extension from five platforms to seven, not in the company of the many hardened commuters on their way to London or Leicester, or the much smaller number of pupils, shoppers, and day visitors, but we meet a ghost, a ghost who is trapped in Peterborough Station. Not an obvious perspective, perhaps, or a connection that comes to mind when remembering the days of pre-pandemic commuting. But part of artful novel writing is about finding connections where no one would go and look for them, or to ask what connects two obviously unrelated incidents or persons.
And, on this day, at 4 a.m., two people die on the tracks of Platform Seven, and we enter the world of Lisa Evans, the one who tries to stop the man who sits on the metal bench at the end of platform out of sight of the night staff, and yet is the first of the two to die.
Yet Platform Seven is neither a ghost story nor a murder mystery. Seeing the plot unravel through the eyes of the ghost of Evans is an interesting twist on the idea of an omniscient narrator. Perhaps it is more than that: Evans’s ghost, like all ghosts, can pass through doors, and go with apparent ease where the living struggle to go or fear to tread. Thus, fiction can be a way to reflect on matters of life and death which may be too painful to explore in real life, real though they may be to those who encounter them. This is, perhaps, true of historic sexual abuse, but also of coercive control and suicide, two of the subjects explored in Platform Seven.
The author Louise Doughty, a playwright and journalist, and author of nine novels including the bestseller Apple Tree Yard
Doughty’s description of the former is, to use that word again, haunting. Through the eyes of Evans’s ghost, who can not only pass through physical doors but also see past, present, and future, we enter into the apparent logic, and begin to see the patterns of, coercive control. They are described in the “matter-of-fact” manner of one who believes, and yet knows she can do so only by suspending her unbelief and her sense of what is acceptable and proportionate — essentially, her sense of self.
There is not only the relentless exploitation of weakness and insecurity — in the case of Evans, of her experience of epileptic seizures. There is also the moral injury caused by a form of competitive hardship, in which one party always wins, if only to take away some more of the victim’s self-esteem, but also of the life that she once had. Controlling abusive behaviour, often over a long period of time, first described by the social worker and activist Evan Stark as “coercive control”, has been a criminal offence in the UK since 2015. It often goes undetected for a long time, not least because one of the first casualties is often the victim’s closest relationships.
As Evans’s ghost can now see past and future, her partner’s former girlfriend, and also Shelley, the single mother with whom Matty will have another child, perhaps a story as well told as hers can open the eyes of the reader to patterns of behaviour that may be entirely plausible but can destroy and kill.
Death by suicide is still a taboo subject: one that generates embarrassment, moral judgement, and silence in equal measure. As a modern secular novelist, Doughty is not in the business of judgement, but what she does do so remarkably well is to perceive, describe, and name: “A suicide kills many more than the individual involved — that’s why people only do it if their pain is so terrible it blinds them to the pain they are inflicting on the people they love.”
To be honest, I probably would not have read Platform Seven had it not roused my interest because it was set in Peterborough. But perhaps the omission of its most remarkable landmark — and, indeed, any aspect of religion — in favour of the railway station, and the parkways and the suburbs they connect, in itself reflects a kind of embarrassed silence which those who live with abuse or die by suicide still encounter, not least on the part of the Church.
Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, editor, and writer based in Peterborough.
Platform Seven by Louise Doughty is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-0-571-32196-4.
PLATFORM SEVEN — SOME QUESTIONS
- “The sin of it. The waste.” Is suicide a sin, in your opinion?
- “Why would anyone give up life voluntarily?” How would you answer Dalmar?
- Is there a significance in a train station — specifically Peterborough Station — being used as the location of the novel?
- “It isn’t love . . . it’s possession.” What is the difference? Do Matty and Lisa love each other?
- “Honesty was stored up by him, secreted.” How does Matty use Lisa’s honesty against her?
- “You do know she doesn’t like me all that much, don’t you?” How does Matty separate Lisa from her friends?
- Why does Lisa start questioning her own memories of incidents within the relationship?
- Why do you think Matty behaves as he does? Does he believe his own stories about the relationship?
- “Until you have experienced the hard slap of violence, you can’t imagine a sudden, bad thing happening.” How can we empathise with violence without experiencing it ourselves?
- “Love takes so many forms.” What forms of love does Lisa eventually come to value?
IN OUR next reading-groups page on 3 September, we will print extra information about our next book, This is Happiness by Niall Williams. It is published by Bloomsbury at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-526-60935-9.
Williams’s ninth novel, This is Happiness is set in the fictional village of Faha, in west Clare, Ireland. The narrator, Noel, now a 78-year-old man, recounts the experiences of his youth in the late 1950s, when a young Noel has withdrawn from the seminary and been sent to stay with his grandparents. Meanwhile, electricity is finally arriving in the village. This is a story of faith, youth, and first love, but also a careful portrayal of the village itself, and the daily lives of the parishioners who live in it, in a world on the cusp of change.
Born in Dublin in 1958, Williams studied English and French Literature at University College, Dublin. He lived in Normandy and New York before settling in Co. Clare with his wife and sometime writing partner, Christine Breen. Williams is primarily known as a novelist; he has written nine published novels, including History of the Rain (longlisted for the Man-Booker prize) and the international bestseller Four Letters of Love, set to become a feature film. The landscape of rural West Ireland is integral to much of Williams’s writing, and he is known for his lyrical, evocative, and often romantic prose.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
October: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
November: Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay