‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley (2015) – 310 pages
In an article in the London Review, Tessa Hadley discusses a biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson, an English novelist who also was married to the scientist and writer C. P. Snow. Usually this type of an article is an occasion for over-praise of the biographical subject. However Hadley winds up her article with the following lines:
“These lives are interesting now because they are history; but I suspect there’s nothing to recover from the novels. All writers are susceptible, it goes without saying, to vanity and panic, but these things drove the Snows crazy; and in their case too much obsession with the outer forms of success looks in the long run like a failure on the inside – it reflects something hollow in the work, as if the writing has failed to be its own fulfillment, its own life.”
Such severe criticism of a novelist, especially of a female novelist, is practically unheard of. The criticism is refreshing, and besides now I don’t have to read Pamela Hansford Johnson. So instead I have read ‘The Past’.
Now with her sixth novel ‘The Past’, Tessa Hadley has arrived. ‘The Past’ is a superior family reunion novel that takes place in their old childhood home in the English countryside.
Her vivid depiction of natural phenomena is a particular strength of Tessa Hadley. In many novels, descriptions of nature seem tacked on, isolated from the plot. However in ‘The Past’ the natural details of the old family home are blended with the interactions of the human characters so smoothly that they actually enhance the story. Thus we have “the jostling of water in the stream that ran at the bottom of the garden, the tickle of tiny movements in the hedgerows and grasses.” It is an “archetypally English” old home place.
The story in ‘The Past’ flows smoothly along just like the stream that flows past their old house. However at one distant point the stream goes over a rocky cliff and becomes a waterfall. The people in the novel too have their turbulences. The reader gets the strong impression that the characters here are just as subject to the laws of nature as everything else.
In the main part of the story, ‘The Present’, there are nine main characters. The three sisters called Harriet, Alice, and Fran and their brother Roland are now all middle-aged. Harriet and Alice are single, but Alice has brought along the college-age son Kasim of one her old flames whose family was originally from Pakistan. Fran’s husband couldn’t make it, but Fran has brought her two children Ivy and Arthur, nine and six. Roland has brought his new third young wife, the Argentine Pilar, and also his daughter from a previous marriage, sixteen-year-old Molly.
When a writer has nine main characters, he or she must juggle different small groups of them in the various scenes. Many of the scenes take place outdoors in the countryside or along the stream or in an old abandoned house near the stream. Hadley is quite adept in her handling of these outdoor scenes, and this reader felt like he was there. The children enliven things, and soon Kasim and Molly develop a strong attraction.
However the novel is called ‘The Past’, and one section is devoted to the backstory. We go back to 1968, when the three sisters’ and brother’s mother was still alive. Also their grandparents still lived on the old family place. The grandfather was a poet and the vicar of a small church near the home. The episode from the past helps us better understand the way things are today.
This is confident and assured story telling with a strong sense of place.