Posts Tagged ‘Tessa Hadley’

‘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


‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’ by Tessa Hadley – The Rise of Tessa Hadley


‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’ by Tessa Hadley   (2017) – 225 pages

My transformation is now complete. I am now a total Tessa Hadley fan.

It has not always been this way.  A dozen or so years ago when I was swayed by some positive reviews, I read her first novel ‘Accidents in the Home’.  While reading this novel, I felt there was just too much description of inanimate objects such as household furnishings and clothing and gardens, etc.  Sure, I felt that some of this minute detailing of items was necessary and well done, but for the most part I found it insufferably mundane.  My reasoning at the time was that I read fiction in order to study and appreciate interactions among people, not to find out about common household appliances.   I’m afraid I did not rate ‘Accidents in the Home’ very highly.

A few years later as the positive reviews of Tessa Hadley’s fiction kept mounting, I tried again with her book of stories ‘Sunstroke’ but unfortunately with the same result.  I still couldn’t get past the fact that Hadley seemed to devote so much of her writing to things rather than people.   Perhaps her writing was too subtle for me at the time.

‘The Past’ which came out in 2015 is the novel that caused an abrupt shift in my attitude toward the fiction of Tessa Hadley.  I finally figured out that Tessa Hadley was not just describing objects, but she was also developing her characters’ relationship to these objects. I suppose this all has to do with the literary device known as the “objective correlative” in which objects are used in a story or poem to evoke or convey emotion.  Hadley understands that how we relate to the things around us is a critical part of the make-up of our character.  In this story of a family reunion, ‘The Past’ contains these lush outdoors scenes in which the natural details of the old family home are blended with the interactions of the human characters.  I was tremendously moved by ‘The Past’ and consider it one of my very favorite novels of 2016.

So now I return to Tessa Hadley and her book of stories ‘Bad Dreams’.  Tessa Hadley is one of those rare writers who appears to be equally adept and comfortable with the short story as well as the novel.  These stories are moving little gems that combine the characters as well as their physical objects.  In ‘Silk Brocade’ two young women starting out in the dress designing business plan a wedding dress for a poor girl who is marrying a rich man.  In ‘Under the Sign of the Moon’ a sixtyish woman traveling by train from London to Liverpool meets a younger man across the aisle.  The story takes an outrageous twist and contains such perfect lines as this:

 “This conversation took place on the surface, while their real lives were hidden underground beneath it, crouching, listening out, mutely attentive.”

Hadley is also one of the few writers who can write stories in a contemporary setting and can still be subtle and outrageous at the same time.

So my opinion of the fiction of Tessa Hadley has transformed, and maybe even the way I view fiction has also changed.


Grade:   A


‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley – A Family Reunion in the English Countryside

‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley (2015) – 310 pages

The PastIn 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.

1470804-verano-de-vista-de-un-arroyo-que-fluye-en-buttermere-ingl-s-en-el-lake-districtWhen 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.

Grade: A

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