Lawrence, in his very early twenties, is studying in Paris. After visiting his girlfriend in Madrid, he arrives at a small town, Hendaye, without a return ticket to Paris. There he meets the mysterious Elodie and begins an affair with her.
And so Sebastian Hampson’s debut novel, The Train to Paris, begins. This is an ambitious piece of writing in which our main character goes on a coming of age journey in a foreign city. Lawrence is young, inexperienced, virginal. He is in a relationship with Sophie but neither seem sure where the relationship is heading, if anywhere. He flats with Ethan, but where Ethan seems able to embrace all life has to offer, Lawrence seems more of an observer. He is studying Art History, a fact Elodie chastises him for; studying “something you don’t ever want to do”.
Elodie on the other hand seems to live from moment to moment. She has a husband whose presence is constantly referred to but whom we never see. Then there is the American businessman, Ed Slavin, who intimidates Lawrence for being what Lawrence simultaneously loathes and aspires to be. Over the course of several months and a journey through the hot spots of Paris, Lawrence goes through a rite of passage that will change him forever.
Hampson, himself, is based in Wellington where he, too, is studying art history. His knowledge of the subject is evident not only in the way his characters discuss art, but also in how they seem intent on living their lives as if they were in a gallery – they seem more obsessed with appearances than reality. Hampson presents a Paris where what you look like and who you know are much more important than what you might really believe. Elodie seems to have made it her mission to create a masterpiece out of Lawrence: she instructs him how to eat, speak, dress, make love. Lawrence appears to be her toy to play with and disregard as she sees fit.
If Lawrence is the main character, Elodie is the novel’s muse. At first she is presented as a confident and domineering woman. She takes it as her role to instruct Lawrence on how to fit into life. But, as the novel progresses, it appears she is not all she seems. As Lawrence develops a greater sense of who he is, her perfectly formed image seems to disintegrate. “Her dress could have brought brand new from the most fashionable of all stores in Paris. But on closer inspection I could see that there was a cigarette burn below the waist.”
I struggled to connect with the characters, particularly Elodie. She is a stereotype of the typical Parisian woman and I found myself desperately wanting Lawrence to grow a back-bone and stand up to her. The further the novel progressed, the less I understood why he was so captivated by her, especially as her behaviour becomes more cruel and erratic. Eventually, I suspect, I gave up caring about what happened to her and, as a consequence, him.
This is an audacious debut, very ambitious in its reach and it certainly evoked Paris for me with its vivid detailed descriptions of the food, bars and street life. While I didn’t feel as satisfied by the end of the novel as I was hoping for, The Train to Paris did leave me feeling excited for what Hampson might produce next.