Earlier this year, the British writer Tessa Hadley described “The Past” as “more plotty” than her previous novels. “It has a stronger narrative curve,” she explained, “which drives us from the first pages to the last.” That’s both hilarious and entirely apt because, in one sense, “The Past” couldn’t be more placid. Yet these elegant pages are so preternaturally gripping that they countenance no interruption.
Unfortunately, “The Past” is one of those books that withers in summary. From a distance, it sounds as engaging as a still-life painting in a hotel room. Pity the poor American publisher forced to commit a desperate bait-and-switch by describing the novel as “a brewing storm of lust and envy . . . where simmering tensions and secrets come to a head over three long, hot summer weeks.”
Readers hoping for a British telenovela will be disappointed. But for anyone who cherishes Anne Tyler and Alice Munro, the book offers similar deep pleasures. Like those North American masters of the domestic realm, Hadley crystallizes the atmosphere of ordinary life in prose somehow miraculous and natural. If the surface of her stories is lightly etched with charm and humor, darker forces burrow underneath.
“The Past” begins as four adult siblings arrive for what might be the final summer at their late grandparents’ place in the countryside. The musty, old cottage needs repairs that none of them wants to make. “In between their visits,” Hadley writes, “it was as if the empty house lapsed into a kind of torpor, and was frigid and reluctant at first when they had to rouse it back to life.” The siblings know they should sell it off — they could each use the money — but they also know that, despite their affection for one another, this real estate binds them as nothing else will.
Hadley introduces her characters in a way that immediately distinguishes them but leaves room for all the rich layering that will accrue. Alice, the flighty one, the former actress, is most reluctant to let the place go. On an ill-advised impulse, she has brought along Kasim, her former boyfriend’s 20-year-old son, a supercilious young man who does nothing to hide his boredom. Alice’s younger sister, Fran, arrives with her two children but not her husband, an absence that becomes the subject of whispered concern. Their other sister, Harriet, “was more shy than anyone knew, and quailed at the necessity of re-entering this peopled world.” And finally, Roland, their adored, impressive brother, arrives with his teenage daughter and his new — third — wife, a svelte Argentinian who makes the sisters feel dowdy and parochial. Harriet is intimidated even by the woman’s luggage, “with its aura of life lived according to a high, intolerant code that she would never master.”
As plots go, siblings gathering at an old house smells as fresh as last year’s potpourri, and Hadley doesn’t make things easy on herself. There’s little more than cobwebs in these closets; the house is not warmed by a cauldron of boiling jealousies. In fact, the four siblings are awfully fond of each other. As Hadley recently told the Guardian: “I write rather successful families. They’re not catastrophically dysfunctional.”
So what exactly generates the magnetism of this extraordinary novel? For one thing, Hadley carves her sentences from some rare earth element that’s both dense and buoyant. And unlike America’s great, showy stylists, she wears her wit like an expensive perfume — suggestive but never identifiable. Spending time with these siblings comes remarkably close to the pleasure of three weeks in the country:
“When the washing up was done and the beds were made up and the children were quiet upstairs, the adults sat around the table again, with the windows open because the night was so warm. Poetic moths, significant in a thin soup of lesser insects, blundered about the candle flames. Harriet had put on a cardigan and tied a silk scarf round her neck, a concession to sociability; scarves were Alice’s thing, but encouragingly she touched her sister’s and exclaimed at how pretty it was.”
You can feel how finely calibrated Hadley’s narrative is to the static electricity running among these siblings living together, one last time “in a lurid glare of nostalgia for something unrepeatable.” The challenge is that “they knew one another so well, all too well,” she writes, “and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities.” They’re striving to be entirely nonjudgmental while passing along helpful advice; disagreements are inevitable:
“They sulked for five minutes and couldn’t forgive each other, until they forgot about it and went back to their gossip, which circled eternally. All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart.”
“The Past” might sound like the tragedy of a broken tea cup, but even in this bucolic countryside, Eros and Thanatos waft in under the drafty door. Fran’s little children — captured here in complex currents of desire, delight and fear — make a discovery that the distracted adults won’t notice until it’s too late. And Roland’s Argentinian wife is trailing clouds of horror from her own country’s violent history. These terrors, local and remote, gradually cloud the days, complicating the siblings’ nostalgia and driving them toward confrontations they don’t entirely understand.
One morning, Alice despairs that she can’t convey to her sisters an erotic dream she had the night before. “You couldn’t describe those things aloud in your waking life that move and then this, the affectionate faceless nameless lover, those suffusing pleasurable sensations,” Alice thinks. “There were no words to fit their innocence. Translated into words they would turn into something cheap.”
That, in a sense, is the challenge Hadley has set for herself in translating this midsummer collision into words. Her success is quietly exquisite.
Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On Jan. 29 at 7 p.m., Tessa Hadley will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Tessa Hadley
Harper. 311 pp. $26.99