Having spent a bit of time hanging round Peterborough train station over the years, I thought it seemed an unpromising place to set a novel, but Louise Doughty has proved me wrong. In Platform Seven, she weaves an unmissable whodunnit where Lisa tries to understand why she died.The book opens following security guard Dalmar, a refugee from Somalia, as he carries out his night shift. After midnight the station goes quiet and most people might assume it is closed, but it runs with a skeleton staff and between the hours of 3am and 6am only freight trains rumble through at platform seven. This is the last platform, towards the back of the station and only partially viewable by CCTV. It is the perfect place for homeless people to hide out and try to sneak into the warmth of the waiting room for a few hours. Dalmar has been desperate, so sometimes he doesn’t have the heart to move them on, feigning ignorance so they can grab a few moments of warmth. At first, he mistakes the man walking through the station, for a homeless person and pays no attention. The man, wearing a cap and donkey jacket makes for platform seven and waits. To Dalmar he seemed hunched in the cold and seems to almost be in a trance.
There is only one other witness to his arrival and that is Lisa. Lisa is trapped in the station, she knows all the staff by name but can’t get them to see and hear her. On this occasion she is sure she understands the desperation in this mans eyes and she worries he isn’t just here for the warmth. As a freight train trundles towards the station he steps towards the platform edge and Lisa desperately tries to stop him but he can’t hear her. Dalmar finally sees the man, but is too far away to make a difference. He shouts. But the man keeps going. He steps through Lisa and straight under the train. Doughty explores the effect this man’s suicide has, firstly on the railway staff. PC Ashcroft from the British Transport Police, and his boss face the task together. Ashcroft has never experienced a railway death before and the horrifying detail of gathering body parts, sorting through clothing to look for ID and organising a cleaning team affects him and us at the same time. He doesn’t want to break down but struggles and wants to understand what could make a man die like this? Dalmar, who witnesses the incident with Lisa, is triggered into a flashback of his own. We are transported back to a dinghy on a river and a woman who’s head is the only part up above the water. In reality it’s detached, merely floating on the surface, but screaming at the same time. Lisa wanted to stop the man and is horrified by what she’s seen. She comes to a horrifying realisation.
In the days that follow Lisa becomes fascinated with a distraught young man she sees in the cafe, while PC Ashcroft discovers that a young woman died recently on the same platform. Something about her death piques his interest and makes him wonder whether the events leading up to her apparent suicide were properly investigated. He asks if he can do some digging and gets the go ahead. Lisa also has a breakthrough, she finds that she can follow this young man out of the station and accompanies him on his walk home. This begins her wanderings and the unlocking of her story. Doughty’s description of the romance between Lisa and her doctor boyfriend, Matty, is brilliantly written and shows a real understanding of domestic abuse. Psychological or emotional abuse has only been made a criminal offence more recently, but it is subtle and difficult to pinpoint even for the victim. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for five years and despite having therapy there are still times when I am confused about how and why I let this happen. Of course I’m not responsible for the abuse, but I was responsible for allowing it to continue. We see how slow and subtle the behaviour begins; a throwaway comment that could be a criticism, a moment of jealousy, an insistence that a hurtful comment was simply a joke and you’re too sensitive. I highlighted a whole passage to use with writing therapy clients: The sad, sobering and undramatic truth is that I made the same mistake that women and girls throughout the ages and across continents have so often made. The one that is so easy, seductive, and most flattering to ourselves. I mistook possessiveness for love. By the time I realised the magnitude of that mistake, I had too much invested in the relationship to simply undo it. I had to keep on making the mistake in order to justify the fact that I had made it in the first place. It was too large and complex an error to admit and how could I explain I had made a mistake to family and friends when I didn’t even understand how I had made it myself? This section of the book is such a beautiful piece of writing and answers perfectly the question everyone asks; ‘why didn’t you leave?’ When asked by my family why I’d never told them, the answer was the same. My husband had died, I had been broken and this person professed to love me. I was ready for something positive to happen in my life. I glossed over a couple of red flags, because he was stressed at work, or moving house and as well as an excuse he made promises to change. If I admitted that my relationship was a sham I would have to admit there was no happy ending and I would be back where I started: bereaved, broken and alone.
It took me five years to admit to others and myself that I had to leave. I’d had to gather my strength over time and eventually he behaved so badly I couldn’t gloss over it any more. I was aware reading Lisa’s story that things could have been so much worse. Matty breaks her confidence and by using the technique of gaslighting leaves her in a place where she doesn’t even trust her own judgement anymore. The outcome is devastating. I really enjoyed the way Doughty slowly frees Lisa. Firstly, she is liberated from the station, then finds a way to whisper a suggestion to someone, then m finally she travels all over Peterborough and even beyond the city towards the end. She finds others like her: the old man from the station suicide pops up soon after his death; a woman in an orange suit striding towards the station; the weird grey blob at the top of the multi-storey car park who she knows to stay away from. However, there are places she wants to be. Most importantly, an urgent visit to a woman she once saw through a window who seemed to need her help. This is domestic noir at it’s absolute best and has stayed with me ever since.
Meet The Author
Louise Doughty is the author of nine novels, including the soon-to-be-published Platform Seven. She has also written one work of non-fiction and five plays for radio.Her most recent book, Black Water, is out now from Faber & Faber UK and Farrar Straus & Giroux in the US, where it was nominated as one of the New York Times Book Review Top 100 Notable Books of 2016.
Her previous book was the number one bestseller Apple Tree Yard. First published in 2013, it has sold over half a million copies in the UK alone and has been translated in thirty territories worldwide. A four-part TV adaptation with Emily Watson in the lead role was broadcast on Sunday nights on BBC1 in January 2017.
Doughty’s sixth novel, Whatever You Love, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also won awards for radio drama and short stories, along with publishing one work of non-fiction, A Novel in a Year, based on her popular newspaper column. She is a critic and cultural commentator for UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly for the BBC and has been the judge for many prizes and awards including the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Novel Award. She lives in London.