The Past by Tessa Hadley

This is a wonderfully nuanced novel of family relationships and tensions, written with real skill and psychological insight into character. My first experience of Hadley’s fiction, but hopefully not my last…

The Past revolves around four adult siblings – Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland – who come together for a three-week holiday at the Crane family home in Kington, deep in the English countryside. The siblings have joint ownership of the house, and one of their objectives during the trip is to decide the property’s fate. In short, the time may have finally come for them to sell before the upkeep on the house becomes too much.

Harriet (the eldest I think), is the most restrained of the Cranes. Despite her worthwhile job and interest in activism, Harriet feels that other, more emotional aspects of life have passed her by – a realisation that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses. Alice, a romantic, expressive individual at heart, has brought along her ex-boyfriend’s son, nineteen-year-old Kasim, seemingly on a bit of a whim.

Fran is the most grounded and well-organised of the siblings. A schoolteacher by profession, she is accompanied by her two children, the curious and watchful Ivy (aged nine) and the suggestible Arthur (aged six). Both of these characters are brilliantly realised, fleshed out in ways that remind me of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Penelope Fitzgerald’s fictional children. Fran’s husband, Jeff, has cried off at the last minute – clearly a source of frustration for Fran, who is left wondering whether her marriage is worth salvaging. Finally, Roland arrives with his third wife, Pilar, a highly-strung Argentinian lawyer, and Molly, his sixteen-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage.

Although very little happens in terms of plot, there is a discernible undercurrent of unease running through the narrative, which adds a degree of tension to this beautifully constructed book.

Not long after their arrival, Alice crosses a boundary with Roland, and her desire to reflect nostalgically on the past prompts an eruption from Pilar, who is still very much a newcomer to the group.

They were all affected by Pilar’s new presence among them – it had the effect of making their talk at the table seem false, as if they were performing their family life for her scrutiny. Alice and Fran were noisy, showing off; Fran exaggerated the drama of Jeff’s selfishness, his dereliction. Ivy spilled her drink, Arthur picked out all the cheese from his sandwich, then left the crusts; Kasim when he appeared wouldn’t sit down for lunch – he said he wasn’t hungry and then carved himself huge hunks of bread, ate them sitting on the grass at the bottom of the garden. Pilar didn’t contribute much to the conversation, the conversation, her remarks were rapid and forceful like her concentrated, liquid glances, as if she closed the discussion instead of opening it up. (p. 41)

Family, it seems, is not always a source of comfort, especially to someone like Pilar, who was raised during Argentina’s Dirty War and the era of the ‘disappeared’. Pilar begins to bond with Harriet during the holiday, viewing her as a potential confidante for her personal history and concerns. It’s another relationship where boundaries are ultimately overstepped, forcing a sequence of events that threaten to derail the holiday.

Elsewhere, the self-confident Kasim has designs on Molly, hatching a plan to seduce her in a nearby derelict cottage – a place that also holds a fascination for Ivy and Arthur, mostly as a secret hideaway where they can escape from the adults.

In a nod to Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris (which I’ve yet to read), Hadley divides her novel into three sections, The Present, The Past and The Present. It’s a structure that enables her to show how earlier events can seep into the here and now, albeit in subtle and surprising ways. The middle section focuses on the siblings’ mother, Jill, who in 1968 is back with her parents in Kington, wondering what to do with her life following a break-up with her philandering husband, Tom. A brief dalliance between Jill and a local man at the abandoned cottage hints at a potential secret in the Crane family, something that may or may not come out in The Present. It’s to Hadley’s credit that she never pushes this and other connections too far, favouring nuance and subtlety over thrills and shocking revelations – a degree of control she maintains throughout.

In summary, The Past is a very absorbing novel, full of subtle, understated observations. The inner lives of these characters are richly imagined, with Hadley moving seamlessly from one individual’s perspective to another throughout the novel. Everything is beautifully described, from the characters’ preoccupations and concerns, to the house and the surrounding countryside. The abandoned cottage and its mysterious secrets are particularly vividly realised, adding to the sense of unease that pulses through the narrative.

Highly recommended, especially for lovers of subtle, character-driven fiction – it reminded me a little of Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave, a novel I very much enjoyed last year.

The Past (first published in 2015) is published by Vintage; personal copy.

45 thoughts on “The Past by Tessa Hadley

  1. MarinaSofia

    Glad to see Tessa Hadley has her share of loyal readers, because a few years back she was viewed as too old-fashioned. I agree with your comparisons- she has those sharp observational skills and comfort with ambiguity or mere hints. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop with her and was very impressed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s really interesting to hear you say that she used to be viewed as old-fashioned…I’d say her style is quite understated and traditional (in the sense that she values insight and character over stylistic tricks and fireworks), but that’s why I enjoyed this so much. She reminds me of some of the older, character-driven writers I love. And it’s great to hear you found her impressive as a speaker/tutor, that’s very reassuring indeed!

      Reply
    2. banff1972

      Oh I bet that was interesting, Marina! I love her writing: can’t wait for the new novel next year. This might be my favourite, and I’ve read almost everything by her now.

      Reply
  2. Morag

    Do read The House in Paris – it will stay with you longer than this novel. I found it haunting. Hope you enjoy it.

    Reply
  3. inthemistandrain

    I think she is under rated, I heard her talk in a Toppings bookshop, she was warm and very intelligent. I’ve only read 2 of her novels The Past and Late In The Day, enjoyed them both but especially The Past. I’ve always intended to read more of her, thanks for the reminder.
    I also enjoy her reviews in The LRB.
    I agree with Morag, you won’t forget The House in Paris.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s a very insightful reviewer! I’ve often thought that, and yet it’s taken me a while to get around to trying her fiction. Thanks, also, for recommending Late in the Day. Funnily enough, I bought a copy of it when I was in London recently, so it’s great to hear you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  4. Cathy746books

    Tessa Hadley read at HomePlace a few years ago and I was so impressed with her. I still haven’t read her though but this sounds like a good place to start. I have a feeling that I will really like her work.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it’s a good entry point into her work. I asked a couple of Hadley fans on Twitter if The Past would be an suitable place to start with her (a friend had already passed her copy on to me), and luckily the answer was ‘yes’! It sounds as if she’s a great speaker, very thoughtful and considered, which bodes well for her fiction.

      Reply
  5. wandsworthvicky

    The Past is so good, it’s a book I have given to several friends – the Penelope Lively too. Have you read Susie Boyt’s ‘The Small Hours’? I think you would you enjoy it and she’s very underrated.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t, but It’s interesting you should mention Susie Boyt, because I came across her fairly recently due to all the positive reviews of her latest novel, Loved and Missed! Thanks for recommending The Small Hours – I shall check it out.

      Reply
  6. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Many years ago I read one of Haley’s fiction pieces in The New Yorker and didn’t particularly care for it. Since at that time I was pretty indifferent to both short stories and the subtle, character driven fiction that seems to be Hadley’s forte, well, it subsequently occurred to me that I had been a bit hasty in my judgment! Right now I’ve two of her books, The London Train & Late in the Day, just waiting to be read (they both look great BTW). Thanks for the reminder about this writer — you’ve definitely bumped her up a bit on my list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, and I’ll be interested to see how you get on! To tell you the truth, I was probably a bit ambivalent towards this type of fiction 20 or 30 years ago when my tastes were more geared towards mysteries and plot-driven narratives. It’s interesting how our tastes change over time as our priorities and interests shift. I’ve noticed the same thing with wine. Gone are the days when I would enjoy a robust red wine from the Rhone or the South of France. These days, it’s whites and roses pretty much all the way, with the exception of the occasional pinot noir!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks! It’s really quite marked. (It’s also one of the reasons why I don’t but wine en Primeur any more. By the time it’s ready to drink, say 20 years later, my tastes will have moved on, making the purchase somewhat obsolete!)

          Reply
  7. Liz Dexter

    I transcribed an interview with her recently and was surprised I hadn’t come across her before, given the comparisons with Anne Tyler, etc. And now I can’t move without her popping out of the woodwork (I know it’s Baader-Meinhof Syndrome and the world isn’t really telling me to read her!). Anyway, I will definitely pick up one of hers if I see it, and you’ve helped confirm that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She does seem to be attracting some more publicity these days, possibly through a combination of her fiction and critical reviews. (I think she reviews fiction for some of the broadsheets and the TLS, as far as I can recall.) Plus, she wrote an introduction for a Vintage edition of Elizabeth Bowen short stories fairly recently – I remember seeing some press around that at the time. I can’t speak to any of the comparisons with Tyler given my lack of familiarity with her; but on the strength of The Past, I’ll definitely be picking up more Tessa Hadley in the future.

      Reply
  8. madamebibilophile

    This sounds wonderful! The careful observations of people and family are so hard to get right and yet so easily overlooked. I’ve enjoyed the Hadley I’ve read and I’m pretty sure I have this buried in the TBR somewhere…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! A treat to look forward to if you happen to have a copy. In the hands of a lesser writer, a couple of elements of the story could so easily have tipped over into melodrama. But the fact that Hadley kept everything relatively subtle and understand is to her credit. A very enjoyable and absorbing novel, all told.

      Reply
  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    A lovely review as always, Jacqui, and you convince even me (who normally avoids most modern novels!) that this would be worth reading. The structure intrigues, I love the quote and if she can capture the complexities of families so well I’ll definitely keep this one on my radar!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I was very impressed, I have to admit! And she’s clearly a fan of Elizabeth Bowen, which is another point in her favour. You may have seen it, but Hadley wrote the introduction to (and chose the stories for) a recent Vintage edition of Bowen’s stories. I already have another edition of EB’s Collected Stories, otherwise I’d be tempted to pick it up.

      Reply
  10. heavenali

    I have read Tessa Hadley, but this sounds like a beautifully nuanced novel of sibling relationships. Good to hear the children are well drawn, I love good child characters. Hadley sounds exactly like the kind of writer I would like.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’d love the children in this, Ali. In fact, I thought of you immediately as I was reading it. All the characters are really well drawn – distinctive, relatable and entirely believable, irrespective of their age and gender.

      Reply
  11. Julé Cunningham

    Tessa Hadley is another of those writers who has been on the periphery of my awareness, but not tried yet. Like you, I think her books probably wouldn’t have appealed to me years ago, but now a nuanced portrayal of families with unspoken hints of other things going on, is much more appreciated.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting how our tastes change over time. I suspect I would have found this a bit slow had I read it (or something like it) thirty years ago, as it doesn’t descend into melodrama or tragedy, despite an underlying sense of tension. Without wishing to sound ageist. It feels like a book that would appear more to middle-aged readers than their younger equivalents, partly because the three sisters are at that stage in their lives.

      Reply
  12. gertloveday

    I recently read a review of Late in the Day which said that she has been described as a writer of the ‘Hampstead Novel’ which I imagine means concerned with English upper class mores, but also rather shallow. I might start with Late in the Day and form my own opinion; so many characters in The Past.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think! I didn’t find these characters shallow – certainly not the three sisters, although Pilar might be considered a bit cold by some. They’re very much a middle-class family, which makes them pretty relatable to many of us.

      Reply
  13. buriedinprint

    I’ve only read one or two of her books, but I’ve been considering adding her to my list of MustReadEverything authors; every time I hear of one, I think it sounds like a perfect match for me (and I enjoyed the sense, in her earlier books, of there being more substance there if one cared to dig for it, but with the option of floating along if one preferred not to…a little like ETaylor in that sense maybe).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I like the idea of her books being layered in that way. She’s certainly a writer I’d like to explore further in the future – I’ve already bought another two of the back of this one!

      Reply
  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. jenniferbeworr

    I’’m late to comment, but happy that you are appreciating Tessa Hadley. Her short stories in the New Yorker are always superb. Some have been collected, but it can be fun to discover them one at a time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s never too late to comment! I bought Bad Dreams, a collection of Hadley stories, recently, which I’m very much looking forward to. Glad to hear you are a fan of her work!

      Reply
  16. Rod McGregor

    Thanks Jacqui. Hadley is very good. There’s something there even for male readers. But forget “nuanced”, it’s hackneyed and exhausted. No one knows what it means. Subtle or allusive are better choices IMO.

    Reply

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