Book review: The Past

OLD ENGLAND is put under a terrific contemporary gaze in this beautifully written novel that abounds in subtle insights into family life. 

Tessa Hadley

Vintage, £8.99

Set up as a kind of a family saga, it does anything but sag, as a bright and compassionate intelligence infuses the pages.

Three sisters and a brother meet for a three-week holiday at the neglected old home of their grandparents where they spent their childhood holidays. 

One sister brings her estranged partner’s young adult son, Kasim. The brother of the family brings his Argentinian wife, Pilar. 

Different cultural and generational perspectives keep the pot from ever congealing with any sense of Little England stodginess.

It is not a big story with a huge narrative sweep yet it is always on the move, always light on its feet. 

Once Hadley has her cast of characters she knows exactly how to move them around so that they are revealed most fully to the reader.

Alice is the pushiest of the sisters and one of the most explosive scenes occurs where she insists on reading aloud letters written by her brother, Roland, to their mother when he left home first.

Alice faces down all warnings, reading on and on with growing amusement until Pilar takes her on. 

The mousiest sister, Harriet, becomes fascinated, if not obsessed, with Pilar, setting up a long slow fuse to another explosion in the novel.

The beauty of the book is that you’re not waiting for exciting plot developments, the rewards are to be found on every page.

The more you read Hadley the more you realise she is not putting in spadework, building towards a climax or some arch denouement. 

It is all in front of you in the sentences, in the moods, in the acute psychological insights, the vivid details of domesticity and in the terrible aches of longing and loneliness.

The dads come out of it fairly badly. Their own father was self-serving, detached and offering little by way of love to his children or even — as we learn — to his wife.

Hadley makes no bones about borrowing the structure of the book — present, past, present — from Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. And she uses the structure so well. 

Halfway through, she plunges us into a scene where we are introduced to a vivid scene from their childhood where their mother — let down by her husband — returns to her own parents.

Again her mother is a lovely woman and the dad — a vicar — is a self-regarding snob who scarcely gets out of his own way to be of use to anyone else. Even the young man of the story, Kasim, is full of himself and a bit wearing.

The women are fleshed out in both their wonders and their faults and make for thoroughgoing engagement in this really enjoyable novel. 

In one of many finely observed moments they dress up to go as a family to a neighbour’s house, all of the rows up to that point surrendered to the occasion and suffused in the mingled perfumes and colognes, conversational snippets and silences as they cross the road to become a family moving forward together.

Hadley shows us her characters’ inner lives not with a slavish churning of their every thought but by inviting us to watch them and listen to them. Her vision is so clear, her ear for their conversations almost musical, and her prose so unforced and fine. This has to be one of the best books of the past year.

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