With each new book by Tessa Hadley, I grow more convinced that she’s one of the greatest stylists alive. The British author of seven novels and several story collections, Hadley regularly inspires such praise, but her success was hardly a foregone conclusion. Her first novel, “Accidents in the Home,” didn’t appear until she was 46, practically geriatric compared with those wunderkinds who secure contracts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and graduate into a field of laurels.
There are compensations, though, for achieving literary success later in life. Unable to sell her first stories while she was raising a family, Hadley went back to school and wrote a PhD thesis on Henry James. That long immersion in James’s canon offered a study of psychological acuity that now illuminates Hadley’s work. But her quietly elegant style and muted wit are triumphs all her own. To read Hadley’s fiction is to grow self-conscious in the best way: to recognize with astonishment the emotions playing behind our own expressions, to hear articulated our own inchoate anxieties.
Her previous book, “The Past” — one of the best novels of 2016 — involves four adult siblings enjoying their last vacation in a summer cottage. It focuses on the passing of a beloved era, a melancholy transition that everyone knows will reshape their relations to each other.
Her new novel, “Late in the Day,” zeros in on a similar but more dire moment of adjustment that arrives with the speed of a swinging scythe. The story involves two married couples who have known each other since their university days. Lydia is married to Zachary, a wealthy man who owns a London art gallery. Christine is married to Alex, a poet who teaches at a primary school. On the opening page, Lydia calls from the hospital with news that Zachary has suffered a heart attack. Christine listens in alarm for several minutes before asking, “Are they going to operate?”
“I told you,” Lydia says, “he’s dead.”
It’s a moment perfectly constructed to capture the confusion of life-changing news, those moments when the roof blows off our well-organized lives and we rush to close a window. “He wasn’t the dying type,” Zachary’s widow objects. Suddenly alone for the first time in years, she’s terrified by her own incompetence, and Zachary’s friends are discombobulated by having the polished structure of their quartet torn apart.
“There was something intolerable in the expectation in that room, strained around Zachary’s absence, which could not be filled,” Hadley writes. “The time when they might have been waiting for him to walk through the door was so recent, so close at hand, that it seemed vividly possible; they could imagine how he’d make his entrance, noisy with reassurances, full of jokes, puzzled by their glum faces. He was always so up to date on everything, so full of news. It seemed impossible he didn’t know this latest fact, his own death.”
“Late in the Day” moves forward and backward in alternating chapters. The earliest sections show Christine and Lydia as students, respectively cautious and reckless, in their pursuit of Alex and Zachary. Here Hadley lays the cornerstones of the lives and romances the four of them will construct over the next decades. How easy it is to forget the cracks in those foundations, but when Zachary dies, they will discover that the intimacy of a long friendship equips them to help — and devastate — each other.
In the novel’s present-day sections, we watch Zachary’s widow and his surviving friends struggle to recalibrate their world without him. Moments of sympathy and understanding are strafed with acts of callousness that shock even the perpetrators. It’s nothing unusual, I suppose, just the everyday tragedies and betrayals of domestic life but rendered by Hadley’s prose into something extraordinary.
Years ago, when an interviewer asked Hadley whether she had any advice for other mothers who write, she replied: “Don’t be afraid that you don’t have enough to say. Your experiences are as interesting as globe-trotting!”
That’s true, but misleading. Motherhood and globe-trotting can be interesting or dull depending entirely on how they’re brought to life on the page. For Hadley, that process involves the precise observation of conflicting motives flitting across her characters’ minds. For instance, in a typically thwarted moment of humility, Lydia “thinks what a selfish person she is, but thinks it luxuriantly.” These are characters on the threshold of understanding themselves, but we always get there first, which is the province and privilege of fine fiction.
The tone of “Late in the Day” is perhaps Hadley’s most delicate accomplishment. This is romantic comedy pulled by a hearse. The whole grief-steeped story should be as fun as a dirge, but instead it feels effervescent — lit not with mockery but with the energy of Hadley’s attention, her sensitivity to the abiding comedy of human desire. Even Zachary’s funeral is spiked with wit, as his daughter struggles to exude enough grief to catch the eye of a young rock star.
Which hints at another wonder of Hadley’s novels: Though she understands the aspirations and humiliations of middle age, she’s just as perceptive when it comes to the yearnings of young people. They prowl around the edges of this story, alternately sympathetic and mortified, convinced with the pure righteousness of youth that they’ll never behave so foolishly as their drifting, dying parents.
Despite its grim opening, this is a novel about the persistence of life, the agonizing but clarifying effect of great loss. Even late in the day, Hadley suggests, there’s still time to begin again.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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By Tessa Hadley
Harper. 288 pp. $26.99.