Book Review: The Past by Tessa Hadley

Book - The Past by Tessa HadleyI was fortunate enough to attend an event featuring Tessa Hadley, organised by Cardiff University as part of their visiting writers series. She read a short story, and I was impressed by her reading voice. It was strange really, that approximately 30 grown adults should sit silently listening to someone reading in an upstairs bar, in the middle of Cardiff City Centre. But it worked. Hadley has a reading voice that takes you straight into her characters’ world, and it’s also the way she writes – you don’t notice the writing because you’re so intent on the story.   

The Past reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s book To the Lighthouse. It is not written in Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style, but it does seem to follow her lead, as the character’s thoughts and impressions ebb and flow, streaming effortlessly from one person to the next, even including the children. The setting is similar: a number of family members thrown together in an old house (which appears to have a character of its own), echoing with past experiences and conversations. It also has a three-part structure, split into distinct sections, and both books have an overriding sense of longing – of coming, at last, towards some kind of ultimate conclusion.

The plot is fairly simple. Three sisters (Harriet, Alice and Fran) and their brother (Roland) spend a few weeks together in their grandparents’ old house – a place they know well, as they spent many childhood holidays there. There are tensions, as outsiders become part of the group: Pilar (Roland’s third wife) and Kasim (the son of Alice’s ex-boyfriend). The children (Ivy and Arthur) create a secret game, and Kasim develops a keen interest in Roland’s teenage daughter (Molly).

The book is split into three sections: the present, the past, and the present again. Hadley admits, in her acknowledgements, that she has borrowed this format from another novel: The House in Paris, by Elizabeth Bowen. I haven’t read it, but I can see how a writer would be intrigued with the possibilities of using this kind of structure. In fact, throughout ‘the present’ sections, there is a constant sense of absence, as if the previous occupants of the house are still there, watching in the shadows.

It feels strange to leave the characters, stranded almost, in the present, and to go backwards, to a hazy, old fashioned time, before some of them even existed. It jars slightly, and is a welcome relief to return, once again, to the familiar ‘present’.

The novel draws inexorably towards a kind of inevitable conclusion: the children must grow up, secrets must be revealed, relationships consummated, feelings brought out into the open. And it all seems to centre inextricably around the ugly, yet also inviting location of the uninhabited cottage in the woods – a sort of fairy tale cave; a place where alternative realities might happen, or could have happened, once upon a time.

I like Hadley’s style of writing – detailed, focusing on the thoughts of each of her characters in turn. This book is not like anything I’ve read before, and yet it feels familiar, as if, in itself, it is echoing past writers, past moments in literary history. I’ll finish with a description, from the book, of the old house:

“Fran unlocked the front door and the sisters stood hesitating, on the brink of the interior for a moment, preparing themselves, recognising what they had forgotten while they were away from it – the under-earth smell of imprisoned air, something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour…”

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