Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s The Past, a beautifully-observed novel about four adult siblings coming together for a holiday at their old family home. It’s a character-driven book, full of subtle tensions and frustrations, demonstrating the author’s insight into family dynamics and human nature. There’s a similar degree of perceptiveness in Bad Dreams, an impressive collection of short stories, all with female protagonists at the heart.

Seven of the ten stories included here were first published in the New Yorker, and are probably still available to read online. Nevertheless, by experiencing them together in this volume, certain patterns begin to appear – common threads and themes, similar structural patterns or motifs – adding texture and depth.

While these stories are rooted in the everyday, Hadley seems particularly interested in what happens when the mundanity of life is interrupted – typically by a new experience or a chance encounter with the potential to disrupt.

In An Abduction – one of the most memorable stories in the collection – Jane, a bored fifteen-year-old girl, home from boarding school for the summer holidays, accepts a lift from three unfamiliar boys in a sports car. Older and more experienced than Jane, the boys are living the high life in a large Surrey house, dabbling with drink and drugs while their parents are away. What follows isn’t quite the horror story the reader might be expecting given the set-up. Still, it’s unsettling nonetheless, culminating in a coda that adds another layer to the narrative.

Experience is another story in this vein, with the protagonist crossing a line into an intriguing new world. When Laura needs a new place to live following the breakdown of her marriage, a friend hooks her up with Hana, a sophisticated, glamorous woman with a spacious house in London. Hana wants someone to look after her home while she spends time in the US, so Laura moves in rent-free to caretake in Hana’s absence. Having settled into the house, Laura begins to step into Hana’s shoes – eating her food, reading her secret diaries, even wearing her clothes now and again.

I had thought that I would forget about Hana once she was out of the house, but moving around inside the shapes of her life, I found myself more powerfully impressed by her than I had been when she was present. The wardrobes full of her clothes stood in for her: velvet trousers and brocade jackets, an evening dress of pleated chiffon with a sequinned bodice – everything padded and sculpted, each outfit a performance in itself. (p. 90)

When Hana’s on/off lover, Julian, calls at the house to pick up some stuff, the visit offers Laura the opportunity to go deeper into Hana’s life. Laura begins to fantasise about a liaison with Julian, a chance to experience something more thrilling than the tame relationship she experienced with her husband. It’s an excellent story with several possibilities for the ending – but Hadley pitches it just right, resisting the temptation for too much spectacle or drama.

There’s a chance encounter of a different kind in Under the Sign of the Moon, another excellent story despite its somewhat uninspiring title! In this piece, Greta, a middle-aged married woman recovering from an illness, travels by train to Liverpool to visit her daughter, Kate. While Greta would prefer to read her book during the journey, the young man sitting opposite her is desperate to talk. After a while, Greta relents, and the pair strike up a conversation, culminating in them sharing a coffee at the station while Greta waits for Kate to arrive. There’s something sad and lonely about this man with his quaint, polite manner and dated clothes – compounded perhaps by his mother’s recent death.

As the two travellers part ways, the man hurriedly issues an invitation for Greta to meet him again later in the week, stating a specific time and place for the rendezvous. Greta declines to reply at the time, but when the day in question duly arrives, she surprises herself by following through, with rather unexpected results! Once again, this is another story with multiple possibilities for development. I won’t spoil things by saying how the potential meeting turns out, but it’s an interesting one for sure.

Other stories showcase Hadley’s skills at viewing situations from a child’s point of view – how strange and unknowable the world can seem when we’re only nine or ten. In One Saturday Morning, ten-year-old Carrie is alone in the house when Dom, a friend of her parents, calls with some bad news about his wife. Hadley perfectly captures the emotions children experience when the mood shifts – a longing for the normality of life to return when sadness disrupts events.

He was set apart, just as his wife had been set apart – except that it was worse with Dom, because he persisted, discomforting in all his living bulk, putting himself in the way of Carrie’s thoughts when she tried to be rid of him. She longed to hear the door shut behind him and for the dinner-party preparations to be resumed, however belatedly – for the whole ordinary process of living to start into motion again, downstairs in the kitchen. (p. 79)

The titular story, Bad Dreams – one of the highlights in the collection – explores a domestic scenario from two different perspectives. Firstly, we see what happens when a young girl wakes at night after dreaming about her favourite story; then we cut to the girl’s mother when she is disturbed later the same night. In both instances, the characters walk around the house, their movements and actions revealing much about the family members within – their habits and preoccupations, their vulnerabilities and flaws. It’s a terrific story, relatively simple on the surface yet full of insights and depth.

Other stories hinge on specific items being passed from one family member to another, providing a framework for exploring the characters’ lives and the fault lines that have developed over time. In Flight, a silk scarf passes from one estranged sister to another, a gift to help atone for past failings and absences. Silk Brocade features a similar motif – in this instance, a sumptuous length of silk is earmarked for a wedding dress until tragedy intervenes.

There’s also a brilliant story about an old man who wishes to leave his house to his carer, Marina, much to her embarrassment. The relationship between these two individuals is beautifully drawn, complete with moments of tenderness and frustration as the man’s life draws to a close. Possibly my favourite piece in the collection, the meaning of the story’s title — The Stain — becomes clear as elements from the past begin to emerge.

In summary then, Bad Dreams is an excellent of stories, elegantly conveyed. While most are set in contemporary times, a few pieces reach back to the 1950s and ‘60s (or occasionally even earlier), boding well for Hadley’s latest novel, Free Love, with its late ‘60s setting. 

Bad Dreams is published by Vintage; personal copy.

29 thoughts on “Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s an interesting writer, for sure. I’ve heard her being interviewed on a couple of podcasts and radio shows but never live. One day, I hope…

      Reply
  1. heavenali

    These stories sound excellent, just the kind if writing I like, with little unexpected shifts in the story, and that child point of view something I always enjoy if done well. I remember your view of The Past, which I also liked the sound of.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d find The Past particularly interesting, Ali, because Hadley openly acknowledges a debt to Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris by borrowing that novel’s ‘present-past-present’ three-part structure. The Bad Dreams stories are excellent too – definitely a writer I’d like to read more of in the future.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds brilliant, Jacqui, and I get what you say about having the stories in one volume – often the threads and themes come out when stories are read that way, rather than scattered about in magazines. I remember how much you loved The Past, so she’s obviously an author to look out for.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they’re worth reading together, I think. As you say, unexpected connections or common preoccupations can often emerge that way.

      You may well be aware of this, but if not…Tessa Hadley is quite a fan of Elizabeth Bowen, who I know you adore. (The structure of The Past mirrors that of Bowen’s The House in Paris in its use of a ‘present-past-present’ approach to the narrative.) She also reviewed the Everyman edition of Bowen’s Collected Stories for the LRB a couple of years ago – there’s a link here if it’s of interest.
      https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n04/tessa-hadley/hats-one-dreamed-about

      Reply
  3. lauratfrey

    Wow, these sound excellent! You’re right, quite a few of these are available online at The New Yorker. I recently wrote a post about Alice Munro, advising people to check her out there. I may do the same here, just to get a flavour. You make each story sound so enticing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s a great idea, Laura! I’d be fascinated to see what you think. The New Yorker is such an excellent resource for stories, so it’s terrific to see that so many of these are still available for people to read. I just took a quick look at their archive, and quite a few of the stories from Bad Dreams date from 2011-2014.
      https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/tessa-hadley/page/2

      The Stain, An Abduction, Experience, Bad Dreams and Under the Sign of the Moon are all worth reading, for sure.

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    These do sound intriguing with those slight twists in the stories that send them in a different direction, something I very much enjoy reading. I think I might take a cue from Laura and look for Hadley’s stories in The New Yorker.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good idea, Jule. I like the fact that she tends to resist the ‘high drama’ option when bringing quite a few of these stories to a close. Some readers might find that a little unsatisfying, but I think it makes for a more realistic outcome. The Stain and Bad Dreams would be good ones to try if you’re interested in checking her out at some point. There’s a link here:

      https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/tessa-hadley/page/2

      Reply
  5. Liz Dexter

    These do sound good. I haven’t massively fancied her most recent one but I did transcribe an interview with her about it and found her very interesting. I keep getting her thrust at me and being told she reminds people of Iris Murdoch, so I’ll clearly have to dip in at some stage!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read enough Murdoch to offer a view on that, but I do think she’s a perceptive writer. Maybe try one of her short stories from the New Yorker archive to see how you get on?

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    You make these stories sound really interesting – I particularly like the idea of a character living in another person’s house and beginning to take on their life! The stories from a child’s point of view also sound good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I felt that story was very relatable. I mean, who hasn’t fantasised about stepping into another person’s shoes at some point in their life? In a way, it gives Laura a chance to try out a new personality, maybe as a way of distancing herself from her broken marriage.

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    This sounds excellent Jacqui. It’s so interesting what you say about picking up recurrent themes and motifs. She’s definitely a writer I want to get back to, her observations are so precise and skilled. I had no idea she was writing regularly in the New Yorker.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Just looking at the New Yorker archive, they have around thirty of her short stories available to read online. So, yes – quite a regular contributor over the past 20 years!

      Reply
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  9. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds excellent. I think I’d rather have it as a collection than browsing the New Yorker, but good they’re available there too for others. Presently I’ve a few short story collections stacked up (including Caldwell’s Intimacies which I see you’ve reviewed) so this probably won’t be immediate, but I am going to make note of it for future.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny. Even though she may not have written these stories with a themed collection in mind (e.g. the NY publication dates range from 2011-2015), they do seem to fit together very well. Quite a few appear to hinge on elements of disruption – not the ‘big’ dramatic things we might traditionally think of, such as a death or an accident, but smaller, more interesting experiences that place the characters in new or unfamiliar situations. You’d like them, I think.

      Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies is great, so you should definitely read that before buying any others. I’d like to go back and read her previous collection too – Multitudes, I think it’s called. Did you read that at some point, or am I getting it mixed up with something else, possibly a Daisy Johnson collection? Fen?

      Reply
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