The Past, by Tessa Hadley

May 30, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

At a recent book group planning session with the AAUW Readers, I gave voice to my frustration with much of the recent fiction that I’ve tried – and failed – to read. Where is the elegance of structure, I moaned plaintively? Where is the graceful, eloquently expressive writing? (You’re talking about craft, my dear friend Helene pointed out, when she and I had  this same conversation several years ago.)

As I was concluding my litany of woes, Debbie, a colleague sitting beside me, leaned over and asked in a whisper if I’d read The Past by Tessa Hadley. “It’s only that you’re passionate about good writing; that’s why I ask.” 

Now I had previously read two novels by this author, The London Train and Clever Girl. I recall enjoying them both a great deal. And I actually had The Past already downloaded onto my Kindle. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Debbie’s words resonated with me. I started Tessa Hadley’s book as soon as I got home. And I knew at once that Debbie was right on the mark with this recommendation.

The Past is a family story, and it reflects generously the messy realities of family life. The Crane family have temporarily abandoned their busy city lives and convened at the house of their late grandparents in the country. There is a question before them: Should  they keep and maintain the house, seat of so many of their childhood memories, or should they sell it? If they decide to keep it, they’ll need to arrange to have work done on it, with all the attendant inconvenience and expense. It would be much simpler to sell up. But then something intangible yet terribly vital will be lost to them forever.

Dramatis personae here consists of three sisters, Harriet, Alice, and Fran, their brother Roland, Roland’s new wife Pilar (or should I say latest wife – apparently he’s had several), Fran’s children Ivy and Arthur, Roland’s teen-aged daughter Molly, and Kasim, Alice’s – well, it’s rather unclear, actually. As you may well imagine, the house becomes a veritable laboratory of tension generation, the level rising and subsiding as argument and irritation are followed by a period of (transitory) calm. And there’s a derelict cottage not far away that’s familiar to Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland from their childhood. It catches some of the spillover from the grandparent house.

This is one of those novels in which as you’re reading, the characters become increasingly vivid, to the extent that you feel you must know them, or at least have known them, at some point in your own life. The conflicts and the emotions are that real.

Hadley’s feel for natural surroundings seems, to this reader, profound:

The lane was strewn with branches fallen in the last high wind; huge oaks growing out of the banks were contorted and bulging with age, their grey hides deeply fissured and crusty. In the high hedgerows the delicate flowering plants of early summer had yielded to coarsely thriving nettles and bramble and dock, rank in the heat. She crossed a stile, then climbed a stubble field up to where cylindrical bales of straw were stored in a Dutch barn. At the top of the hill the wide landscape was proffered bleached and basking, purged of its darkness: there were views across the shining estuary all the way to the blue hills of Wales and, behind her, inland to the moors.

She’s also extremely astute in her observations of children. (In this, she reminds me of Joanna Trollope and Ann Patchett.) Fran’s daughter Ivy is at a volatile age, often beset by surging anger and resentment and prone to misinterpret the words and actions of those around her. And yet she’s pretty much allowed the run of the place. Various people are assigned supervision of Ivy and her little brother Arthur, with the result sometimes being they they’re being supervised by no one in particular. It  seems to me only sheer luck that prevents her from precipitating a full blown disaster.

The odd result of all this commotion is that although The Past hasn’t get an especially dynamic plot, it has still got plenty of suspense. Oh – and lest I forget to mention it – Tessa Hadley has a wonderfully wry and subtle sense of humor.

This is a marvelous novel written by a master of her craft. I recommend it highly; I also think it would make an excellent subject for a book discussion group.

Tessa Hadley

 

1 Comment

  1. MarinaSofia said,

    She is a very subtle and careful writer. I do enjoy her style.

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