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A wonderful, detailed, textured tale of a family reunion. And more.

The-PastHow is it that I missed Tessa Hadley till now? Perhaps because she has been modestly praised (according to the dust jacket), but using words which convey qualities which may be less in fashion in the bling bling current world of publishing with advance bidding wars over first time authors clearly writing with their eyes on megabucks

Hadley, in a review from the Independent, has that (to me) magical word ‘understated’ applied to her. Thanks heavens, I thought, this might mean that here is an author who trusts her readers, doesn’t need to signal intention by shouting in primary colours, and, perhaps is one who rewards the reader who settles down keen to settle into the detail of a well observed world

The Past gave me everything I hoped it would, and pretty well from the opening paragraph I felt in safe hands, as Hadley introduced me, with beautifully observed description, into place, time and character

Her book is divided into three sections, The Present, The Past, and The Present again, and examines a particular family.

Four adult siblings return for a three week holiday to a country house which belonged to their grandparents, long deceased. The four have come together, bringing children, if they have them, and bringing or not bringing partners, because they need to discuss what to do with the house, which they have all used for family holidays, over the years.

The middle aged adults, romantic, dreamy, intuitive Alice; her younger sister Fran, sparky and more pragmatic, made so by being married to a more ‘free-spirit’ man, who leaves her to deal with the detailed practicalities of parenting; oldest sister, austere, controlled Hettie, and their brother, the intellectually, media successful Roland, now on his third marriage, play out their family dynamics, set in childhood. Fran brings her two young children; Roland, not only his new wife Pilar, whom no one has yet met, but also his teenage daughter from a previous marriage, Molly. And Alice, who is childless, and has hopped from intense relationship to intense relationship, brings Kasim, undergraduate, her almost step-son, her ex-boyfriend’s son

In the relationships of the four siblings, we see certain family patterns which were clearly there from the start. And in Fran’s children, we can see how perhaps these patterns will be both adapted, and repeated.

The section entitled The Past, spools back to the late sixties, and to Jill’s story – Jill is those now middle-aged adults’ mother, come with her children, during a difficult time with her husband, back to her own parents’, to this family home. And we see up close and personal psychology, family dynamics, running through three generations

What I found so satisfying is that Hadley is not presenting the reader with florid, excessive, scandal-sheet worthy family dysfunction. This is the life of perfectly ordinary, perfectly individually unique human beings in recognisable relationship to the culture of their time and place. People like you and me, with all their/our specific quirks which set this person as recognisable different-and-yet-the-same as that person.

So, a perfectly ordinary family gathering in a perfectly ordinary three weeks. Except, that like any life, what to an outside eye might seem ‘nothing happens’ – no one dies, no one kills anyone, turns into an axe murderer, has a secret fetish for cannibalism and all the rest of the schlocky stuff – a (real) world happens.

In the living out of moment-to-moment the huge ongoing drama of psychology and relationship and character are expressing themselves within each person, and in their self-assessment of themselves, and their simultaneous assessment of how they think they are seen by others, and their own assessing of everyone else is going on. The ceaseless chatter of humankind, talking at itself, judging itself, judging others, the gestures and moments of connection and of separation endlessly playing out

Alice said she felt terrible that Fran had had to do the shopping. But she couldn’t have brought it on the train, and they somehow couldn’t have asked Roland to shop, could they, as they hadn’t met his new wife yet? And Harriet would have been too abstemious. Fran reassured her that she hadn’t been abstemious at all; Harriet would be horrified when they divvied the costs up later. Alice hugged the children: Ivy holding herself stiffly, convalescent, and Arthur leaning into the kiss, liking the perfumed warmth of women

All through, Hadley tells you far more than she is obviously laying out. She rather continually scatters treasures. This is both a book which was a brilliant first read, and will for certain be one to go back to, like revisiting a favourite complicated artwork, to pleasurably allow new details, missed initially, to be noticed

She also has the courage to leave some threads untied, some questions unanswered – this is a book like a treasure hunt, and if the reader picks up a clue, they may wonder about it, but if they didn’t – no matter, they will have no doubt picked up a different clue which another missed.

Reading this, I thought of Austen – the similar working of specific time and place, that ‘little bit of ivory’ – looking at the everyday. Also the slyness of the observation, the understated wit. And, in the melancholy which accretes to the book, the looking back to a ‘golden’ time (that world of childhood), though it wasn’t, and, again the kind of humour, not to mention the family itself, brought Chekhov to mind.

John Singer Sargent - A Classic Rose Tinted Spectacles, if ever I saw one, picture

John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

At least, having missed Hadley until now, I’m delighted to discover that she has 5 earlier novels and two collections of short stories, so I don’t (yet) need to wait impatiently for her next new book!

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine, UK.Tessa Hadley

However, dear Statesiders, there appear to be weird goings on. It is available on digi and hard, with the British cover (a much more apposite one) The American edition (different cover, not in keeping) is only out for review by Viners, as it is unavailable till next year. I have included the link to the available version. Which sadly only has one (negative) review. And does at least allow you a ‘Look Inside’ Generally positive reviews from USA Viners to be read on the USA version. Confusing, or what!

Readily available in both formats and with the best cover in the UK

The Past Amazon UK
The Past Amazon USA

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