Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Past by Tessa Hadley

Sometimes you come across a novel that just gets everything right: the atmosphere, the characters, the tone. This is the case with Tessa Hadley’s The Past. It is one of those stories that sound kind of familiar: siblings return to the crumbling house of their grandparents one last time before it is sold. They intend to spend a final summer holiday there, but pretty soon the cracks in the tenuous glue that binds them as a family begin to reveal themselves. This is partly due to baggage from the past.

First we meet Alice as she arrives at the old country Rectory. In her forties, she has never married, but brings twenty-year-old Kasim, a sort of step-son who is bunking off from study. She can’t find the key and Harriet, the older sister who arrived earlier, has chosen to go for a walk rather than open up. Fran turns up with all the shopping, flustered, and with two small children, stroppy Ivy and easily manipulated Arthur. In a few deft strokes of her pen, Hadley has brought us into her characters’ world.

As they settle in, the women debate the difficulty of negotiating the tricky waters around their brother Roland who has a new wife, exotic Argentinian Pilar, arriving the next day. They bring Molly, Roland’s lovely but utterly vapid sixteen-year-old daughter. There’s no Internet or cell-phone coverage which means playing Monopoly and plenty of sexual tension which turns up in surprising ways.

While ‘the past’ is ever present and there is a chunk of the book devoted to events decades before, what makes this book glorious is the often hilarious scenes Hadley creates around her characters’ here and now - the way they rub each other up the wrong way, the compromises and secrets. Events build up to a tense and heady ending as the weather changes and emotions boil over. A decrepit cottage in the woods, the Rectory with its rooms opening weirdly off each other, plus overgrown leafy paths make for atmospheric settings.

‘The Past’ is an engrossing novel, promising much more than the understated cover would have us believe – just like the story where outwardly there isn’t a lot happening, but much is sizzling underneath. Hadley is a superb writer, one I shall be putting on my list of authors to watch.
Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Past

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