‘Late in the Day’ by Tessa Hadley – Drowning in a Sea of Elegance and Exquisite Taste

‘Late in the Day’ by Tessa Hadley (2019) – 273 pages

I was bowled over by Tessa Hadley’s previous novel ‘The Past’ as well as her latest collection of stories, ‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’. However after praising Tessa Hadley to the skies twice, I must now don my critical hat, and write about what bugs me most about the writing of Tessa Hadley.

I found the elegance and sheer perfection of these characters’ every move and thought quite annoying. Hadley lays it on quite heavily. To me this seemed like a form of over-writing that I did not care for. Sure these are all wonderful people with their own special talents and personalities, but I grew tired of Hadley pointing out these characters’ magnificence in every little detail.

The refinement of these folks’ clothing, furniture, houses, backgrounds, and all else is something to behold.

‘Late in the Day’ starts with a death. Lydia’s husband Zachary has just died. They are only in their forties so the death was entirely unexpected. Lydia calls her friends Alexandr and Christine to tell them what has happened and they rush to the hospital where they meet Lydia.

She had her air of a disgruntled queen, haughty and exceptional in a sky-blue velvet jacket with a fake leopard-skin collar; when Christine turned to embrace her, people turned their heads to stare.”

Apparently no one is distraught enough not to note every detail of Lydia’s precious clothes. And so it goes.

After this first scene, we get alternating chapters of these two couple’s lives from their early days just after college until the sad present time. In the present day, each couple’s single child, Grace and Isobel, is also brought into the story. I found all of these characters somewhat off-putting.

Everything is pristine perfection. When Zachary wants to buy and open an art museum (because his family has plenty of money), it is not just any old art museum: “A red-brick chapel, built by the Huguenots in a modest backstreet of terraced eighteenth century cottages in Clerkenwell.” Hadley goes on and on detailing the subtle furnishings of this chapel. She describes “the arched side windows which still had their original thick flawed greenish glass”. “The interior with its floor tiles worn by human passage into a shallow relief landscape, its dreamy underwater light, its gracefully curved upper gallery supported on iron pillars.” Hadley continues in excruciating precision:

An arched gateway wide enough for a wagon, fitted at some point with corrugated iron doors now rusted fantastically, gave access to a cobbled courtyard overgrown with buddleia and nettles and filled up high with junk – old chapel pews ripped out when the chapel was used as storage for a builders’ merchant, heaps of rotted drugget, plastic sacks of hardened cement, abandoned steel scaffolding poles and bolts, an ancient Gurney stove, hymn books rotted down to a pulp.”

Even the rust is fantastic. This is an overload of exquisite detail. Enough already. It is enough to make me regret my own miserable surroundings.

At a later point in the novel, the character Lydia gives the game away. “Lydia said she thought things were better when travel was restricted to the upper classes. – At least they had taste and good manners.”

Being very much descended from the lower classes myself, this remark offended me. I hope that this was Hadley’s attempt to show Lydia’s snobbish attitude and not Hadley putting her own thoughts in Lydia’s mouth. I found these characters laughable in their pretensions, but Tessa Hadley wasn’t laughing.

Otherwise, the story in ‘Late in the Day’ held my interest, despite the elegance overload.

 

Grade :    B

 

2 responses to this post.

  1. Hmm, it’s a bad sign when you can’t tell whether that comment about travel is meant to be ironic or not…

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • HI Lisa,
      Over ten years ago, I read Hadley’s ‘Accidents in the Home’, and I didn’t care for it much because Hadley seemed to over-value the rich and under-value those who weren’t. I avoided her writing for a decade, but then really liked ‘The Past’ and ‘Bad Dreams’. But now with ‘Late in the Day’ it reminded me of my original problem with her.

      Like

      Reply

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