Platform Seven

Louise Doughty

Faber & Faber, £14.99

Peterborough train station is, for travellers, a sort of limbo through which they must pass to reach London, East Anglia, the Midlands or the north. If you’ve ever been stranded there in driving winter rain, it is a byword for bleak. Which makes it the ideal setting for Louise Doughty’s dark novel.

The narrator is haunting the station at four o’clock on a cold November morning when she sees a man alone on Platform Seven, the one furthest from station staff, and knows he is waiting to throw himself in front of the next train. “If only I could speak, even in a whisper. Then I would hiss in this man’s ear, [italic]Trust me, this is a terrible thing to do – you will only appreciate just how terrible as you tip forward and reach the point of no return.”

The would-be whisperer’s name is Lisa Evans. She stands in front of the stranger to block his way, but he does not see her – not surprisingly, since she is a ghost. Despite the warning shout of Dalmar, the night security officer, the man pitches himself under a freight train. His is the second such death at Platform Seven in 18 months and, like Lisa’s, is considered a tragic suicide. Shortly afterwards, however, Lisa, who has only a sketchy memory of her past, realises that she was nothing like that man. She did not kill herself. “So what happened to me?”

At tedious length, Doughty tells us. Her research, shadowing the staff at Peterborough Station, pays off in authentic detail, such as how the clean-up team kicks into action after a fatality on the line, or the way in which the British Transport Police operates. The fieldwork is praiseworthy, the fiction less so. What follows is a cautionary tale, so repetitive and signposted it feels like a public health warning.

Contrary to first impressions, its subject is not suicidal depression, but domestic abuse. As Doughty gradually reveals, before she died Lisa was in a relationship with a controlling and deeply unpleasant man. He swiftly isolated her from her friends and family, and undermined her self-esteem, yet she remained heedless to the threat: “The water gets hot very gradually, and as far as the frog is concerned, there is no one point where it gets dramatically different or bad enough to jump out.”

Most people think they are savvy enough to spot an abuser but, as with Lisa, desire and hope can render you wilfully blind. That her new lover is a doctor adds to his allure, and the prospect of no longer facing a lonely future helps paper over the cracks. And what cracks they are, as the doctor begins to make Lisa, a lively teacher in her mid thirties, think she is losing her mind and that she, not he, is the abuser.

It’s a page-turning storyline, despite the tricksiness of a dead narrator and the plot contortions this entails. And while the subject is painful, it is not morbid. Doughty has a feel-good instinct that may in part explain why she, like her regretful ghost, is keen to emphasise what a wonderful world this is.

As with her earlier novels, including Appletree Yard, Doughty is tuned into the zeitgeist, in this instance the rising awareness of middle-class domestic abuse. She loves nothing better than to introduce us to characters whose role is minor, yet whose backstories and aspirations she richly embellishes. One such is Dalmar, the security guard and traumatised refugee; another is dogged Sergeant Lockhart, who is suspicious about the carnage on Platform Seven: “Lockhart nibbles on the edge of a Hobnob and wonders whether he should move sideways after a few years, over to the Home Office force, do detective training and aim high, apply to join a murder squad. BTP is all very well; there’s a good sense of solidarity in Division C on account of there being only four thousand of them for the entire country – he’d like to see the Met do better on that ratio – and the promotion prospects are quite good. But he’s not sure where he sees himself in ten years’ time.” And then there is the sad young man on whom Lisa develops a crush, whose connection to the second suicide victim is dutifully unfurled. That he deals with his garden hedgehog’s dinner before his own is shorthand for how decent he is.

There’s no denying Doughty’s ability to propel a reader onwards, through the welter of superfluous information, the often repeated ideas and cloying sentimentality. It is not the writing that is propulsive, but the need to know what it all adds up to. Should readers reach that point, they will know that Doughty is no doom merchant, no peddler of grief. Her subject might be heart-breaking but, more like a therapist than a novelist, she wants happy endings for everyone.