Saturday, February 27, 2016

"The Past," by Tessa Hadley

I had every reason to be quite sure that I would like English author Tessa Hadley’s new novel, “The Past” (Harper, 2016), and I did like it, very much. First, I have read several of Hadley’s novels and both admired and enjoyed them (see my posts of 7/12/11, 7/13/11, and 3/12/14). I had put her on my mental list of authors whose new books I watch out for. Further, the novel is about family members who meet for three weeks for one last stay at a longtime family home in the countryside in England, a house that had been their grandparents’, and that they will probably be selling soon. This gathering of relatives or friends from near and far in a somewhat isolated place and then observing them interact is a device that many writers have used, and one that I am very fond of. It is a riff on Jane Austen’s claim that (paraphrasing and slightly exaggerating here!) by writing about people gathered in a small village, she could illuminate all of life. Another (rather more somber) notable example that springs to mind is the wonderful Irish writer Anne Enright’s 2007 novel, “The Gathering,” about a scattered family that comes together for a funeral after the suicide of a brother. “The Past” also involves adult siblings, four in this case, along with their various spouses and offspring, gathering, talking, interacting, arguing, cooking and eating, and dipping into their past. They have different memories of, and different feelings toward, their parents and grandparents, and their lives as children. They love each other, and in some cases know each other well but in other cases seem not to understand each other at all. They communicate uneasily. There are secrets from the past and present that are sometimes exposed at inopportune times and in inopportune ways. The book is structured in three parts: the first section is about the present, the second about the past of the siblings’ childhoods and of their parents and grandparents, and the third returns to the present. One motif that joins the past and present is a primitive cottage in the woods on the grounds of the family home, a building that is the home at various times to mystery, menace, excitement, discovery, romance and desire. But best of all, for me and I am guessing for most readers, are the portraits of the characters and their interactions. Hadley is a gifted observer of human character and behavior, of how people both change and stay the same as they grow older, and of how family members interact. For all of these reasons, along with that of Hadley’s perceptive and sometimes quite beautiful writing, both about people and about their surroundings in the countryside, this is my kind of novel, one which was a great pleasure to read. Let me leave you with two excerpts, one about family and one about long marriages. About family: “All the siblings felt sometimes…the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, yet they were continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared” (p. 79). About long marriages: “In bed, while finding her place in her book, Sophy felt the familiarity of her husband’s lean flank against hers, through the cloth of their nightclothes: they lay close together because the bed hadn’t warmed up yet….The lovemaking part of their marriage wasn’t over, but most often these days their contact was merely friendly. After sleeping together for so many years, they hardly had to go through the rigmarole of a rapprochement or a truce before they touched, even if they’d been at odds while they were talking. Their bodies, more prosaic than their souls, were intimate at a level deeper than their argument” (p. 217).
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