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“The Live Wire of the Life”: the Fiction of Tessa Hadley

by Evelyn Somers

A few paragraphs into Tessa Hadley’s story “One Saturday Morning,” which appeared in The New Yorker last August, I had a pleasant start of recognition. Carrie, the ten-year-old protagonist, is practicing piano one morning in the mid ’60s, trying to make up for all the practice time she’s missed. She’s put it off because of her dawning recognition that she’s not particularly talented, that “piano wasn’t the answer she’d hoped for, to what was unsolved in herself.” There’s also the fact that piano lessons have soured for her of late, since she fears her teacher may have read one of the dirty notes she and a friend have been writing to each other. What gave me the start, though, was a small detail: the scale book Carrie is practicing out of, A Dozen a Day. A similar morning in the 1960s might have found me, on the other side of the Atlantic, practicing the same scales out of the same technique series. Hadley doesn’t describe the lighthearted stick figures that capered through the pages illustrating the exercises, but for me, the simple mention of the title was enough to evoke the life stage and situation she is depicting: a shy and sensitive middle-class girl on the edge of adolescence.

In her Q&A with The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman for “The Story This Week,” Hadley talked about the details of Carrie’s home and surroundings, some of which were imagined but many of which come from Hadley’s childhood home, “transcribed from memory.” The author doesn’t always borrow this heavily from her own past, she says. ”It’s something I’ve done recently, just in a couple of stories about childhood in the nineteen-sixties. I felt while I was writing them like a ghost trespassing in my own past, touching things I left behind there.” The things “left behind” are impeccably rendered, and in the most effective passages of description, the reader feels their essence, as if they are haunted by memory:

Carrie fingered the objects on her mother’s dressing table, so well known they seemed like parts of her own self: the amber necklace with its knotted waxy thread, the prickly dried sea horse someone had brought from Greece, a cylinder needle case of polished wood, a bottle of the Basic Dew that her mother used on her face. The coral brooch, with its fine gold safety chain and extra pin, had belonged to her mother’s own mother; a black lacquer box was painted with forget-me-nots and had a poem pasted inside the lid.

So there is the past, resurrected by memory distilled; but there are also points in the story when without warning the narrative bounds away to give the reader a long view, assessing the period in retrospect: “In photographs now, those arty sixties rooms look unexpectedly austere; their effects seem sparse and rickety, amateurish, in comparison with the fat tide of spending and decorating that came later.” So naturally and unapologetically does Hadley assert her authority here that we almost don’t notice—but it’s a move worth noticing because it reveals how assuredly she’s controlling the narration in order to evoke, in her words, “that cranky, funny moment in British life, when many forms were breaking up and appearances were changing.”

With its faultless rendering of the ’60s setting, “One Saturday Morning” arrests our attention—so, too, with the hyperconsciousness of the young point-of-view character, Carrie. This sort of ultra-keen awareness applied to the situations of normal life is typical of Hadley’s characters, and it’s what makes reading her fiction a rare pleasure.

Tessa Hadley’s stories have been appearing in The New Yorker since 2002, the year she made her fiction debut with the novel, Accidents in the Home; since then she has published two story collections, four novels, and a critical study of Henry James’s fiction, based on her doctoral work, that came out the same year as Accidents. Critics have noted the novels’ subject matter—families, homes, marriages, relationships both sanctioned and illicit—and remarked on how the fiction exceeds expectations of the maligned domestic genre. Accidents in the Home is a cluttered but simmering story about a young wife and mother of three, Clare Menges, who is restless in her marriage to Bram and embarks on a liaison with the more exciting lover of a good friend. Hadley’s descriptions of what is wrong between people can be piercing:

Something had happened between Bram and Clare that summer. Or rather—that sounds too much as if it had happened to both of them impartially—there was something she had done to him, although neither of them could have named it. She had an image; it was as if with fiendish cunning she had contrived to lower around him, out of the clear blue sky, without his once being able to be sure she was doing it, an invisible all-smothering deadly force field of antagonism. It was like a dome of glass, cutting him off from her completely—but quite transparent. She knew there wasn’t a word he could say to complain of her. She was punctiliously generous and cheerful. She not only entered into but initiated holiday enthusiasms. She overflowed with just the right measure of affectionate names and touches, not overdoing it. Only a flaw in the quality of their eye contact could possibly give her away—she felt it on her side almost like a momentary ugly squint, that when she looked at him her glance didn’t reach his eyes straight but slipped off him, off the falsity of the bright reflective surface between them. Then, for a moment, anyone might see revealed the rictus of her hostility. So she didn’t look directly at him very often.

In this screen shot of Clare and Bram’s endangered relationship, we see a marriage threatened because one partner is assassinating it—deliberately and with a cold-blooded satisfaction. Though Clare can’t name what she has done to Bram, she’s vitally aware of how she has done it.

Hadley was 46 when the novel was published, and she had been writing in relative solitude, without “rub[bing] up against the audience” for years while she stayed home and raised her sons, finishing several novels, sending manuscripts out, and getting rejections that she later understood were more favorable than she had realized. So her first novel was hardly a beginner effort. In The Guardian’s review of the novel, Julie Myerson wrote that, far from being “another of those chick-mum-sex-lit things,” the book had “something much more interesting going on.” The something interesting included “prose to die for” and a “breadth and depth that catapults the book into the premier league.”

How does a first-time novelist come out of the gate so good? Through practice, and an intense and constant engagement with one’s own accumulating life experiences, perhaps. But Hadley’s academic background, too, fitted her for a career as a novelist, even though marriage and child-rearing made it a stop-and-start course. Born in the late ’50s in Bristol, Hadley studied English Literature at Cambridge and afterward, at 23, decided to be a teacher. She realized almost immediately that she wasn’t capable of managing hard-to-control kids in the classroom. Motherhood looked like a better alternative, and she had the first of her three sons (she also has three stepsons) in 1980, in her early 20s. “However bad it was in moments, having a baby was always better than teaching,” she said in a 2013 interview with The Independent’s James Kidd. In her late 30s she began a Masters program in creative writing at Bath Spa University, where she now teaches. Next came a PhD, with her thesis on Henry James, but she was also on the cusp of a breakthrough with Accidents, which was excerpted in The New Yorker, winning Hadley an American audience.

I was interested but not surprised to learn that Hadley’s thesis focused on the work of the American realist master (the book that emerged from it, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, is a study of how the influence of European novels affected James’s later work). The acute psychological perceptions of Hadley’s fiction remind me of James, and of Elizabeth Bowen, who is an admitted influence on Hadley’s writing. I couldn’t help but think, in some moments, of Bowen’s The Death of the Heart or James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Clare’s “all-smothering deadly force field of antagonism” with which she separates herself “invisibly” from Bram recalls the dangerous motives and secrets of a Gilbert Osmond or an Anna Quayne. Reading the Huffington Post’s review of Hadley’s most recent novel, Clever Girl, I had to disagree with reviewer Claire Fallon, who called the first-person narration “monotonous” and complained that the narrator, Stella, “never feels like an intimate friend.” There’s nothing monotonous about the intensity of Hadley’s perspective, even if her gaze is often turned on the details of daily life.

To complain that a writer of Hadley’s talent is not another kind of writer—a Hilary Mantel or a Barbara Kingsolver or a Lorrie Moore, to name a few women writers of her generation with followings—is not really fair. Though some reviewers have commented on the loose structure of her novels, she’s wary of making “the hook of story become the principle of construction of the novel.” In Hadley’s fiction, the greatest tension resides, almost always, in the intelligence and exactitude with which the narrator delineates the characters’ responses to the kinds of things that happen to mostly ordinary British people. These are gifts—intelligence and exactitude—that Hadley possesses in abundance. She doesn’t seem as intent on evoking our sympathy; and perhaps she is not as good at it as she is at probing her characters’ interior landscapes—private, guarded, occasionally appalling. Considering this, I was lured back to Henry James’s Preface to The Princess Casamassima, from the New York Edition of his works:

There are degrees of feeling—the muffled, the faint, the just sufficient, the barely intelligent, as we may say; and the acute, the intense, the complete, in a word—the power to be finely aware and richly responsible. It is those moved in this latter fashion who “get most” out of all that happens to them and who in so doing enable us, as readers of their record, as participators by a fond attention, also to get most.

Such individuals—the “acute” characters who are “finely aware”—are a type Hadley writes about, and if they don’t always get the most out of their lives in terms of personal or worldly success, they are exceptionally aware. In “Married Love,” the title story of her second collection, that character is Noah, whose older sister, Lottie, made an ill-advised marriage to a teacher and composer decades older. Lottie has sacrificed her musical talent to have babies and keep them out of his way. Only Noah, typical of Hadley’s sensitive observers, can fully articulate how bitterly disappointed his sister is—Lottie is not honest enough to confess it. In “The Godchildren,” also from Married Love, the primary perspective belongs to Chris, a university lecturer who reunites with two childhood acquaintances, now grown women, to receive a small bequest from their mutual godmother. Despite “the usual apparatus of his ideas and ironies, crowded as a junkyard,” Chris is the one who can cut to the simple but overaching question in the story: “What’s the matter with us?” as each has failed in some large way in adult life. Coming to Hadley’s fiction is a little like stalking the characters with a good set of binoculars, if binoculars could see beneath the public surface, into the heart.

Clever Girl (2013) was my first exposure to Hadley’s books (from there, I happily went back to some of the earlier work). Two elements are essential to the novel’s arc: 1) a smart protagonist and 2) sex. It may be that this pairing is basic to a lot of Hadley’s other fiction as well. Reviewing for The New York Times, Meg Wolitzer wrote that the novel is “unusually realistic about how lives get lived. It provides an important corrective to the assumption that all people at all times possess that buzzword, ‘agency.’” She’s entirely right in this assessment. The novel, narrated in first person (a departure for Hadley), charts the life course of the protagonist, Stella, from childhood to early middle age. Stella’s sharp awareness of both the ordinary and the extraordinary in her small life emanates from the pages, often with breathtaking precision—but we understand fairly early that, partly because Stella is a girl and this is Bristol of the 1960s, life is going to happen to her, with or without her willing participation.

Stella is such a penetrating lens for the story that it’s possible not everyone will find her fully sympathetic (I did)—but the reader who’s paying close attention will find her interesting, smart and brave. Among other qualities that may not endear her to those who like their characters more vulnerable is the fact that she doesn’t suffer fools— or even ordinary people who are not quite her equals in intelligence. Yet she repeatedly encounters such individuals, and they shape her life. Take her description of the stepfather she acquires in preadolescence. For Stella, this relationship begins in mutual conflict. “I was a child, so he had power over me,” Stella explains. “That’s all tyranny is: it’s not in a personality, it’s a set of circumstances. It’s being trapped with your enemy in a limited space—a country, or a family—where the balance of power between you is unequal, and the weaker one has no recourse.” It’s through her battle with Gerry that she discovers her own high intelligence, her “cleverness”:

At first this cleverness was like a sensation of divinity; then after a while it ate itself and I couldn’t turn the mind-light off, couldn’t stop thinking through everything . . . I saw Gerry—and my mother, and my school—all as if they were tiny, in the remote distance. I believed that if I wanted to I could solve all the problems in the physics teacher’s book.

But soon Stella’s interest in the opposite sex begins to bloom. The consequence is teenage pregnancy, thwarting her “cleverness” and pushing Stella out of her family and into adulthood. It’s this part of the novel, chronicling Stella’s adulthood, where lack of agency is evident: Stella finds homes and employment and generally gets along almost by accident, joining a commune, having another baby, losing the father of her second son to a murder that’s about as freakily unforeseen as everything else that happens to Stella, and finally settling into marriage with a considerably older man. These events and stages in Stella’s life proceed in chapters that manage to leapfrog adroitly over large parts of the in-betweens. It’s one of the qualities I first noticed about the book—the ease with which Hadley can make these leaps, and keep us from minding. Or at least, I didn’t mind because it all struck me as exceptionally real. Never for a moment did I not believe in Stella.

For the reader who wants a more consecutive narrative, laying out the transitional bits, Hadley’s offering may feel too episodic—but that would be ignoring the vitality of the slices we see, “the live wire of the life, which jumps from place to place,” as Hadley has said. There’s a type of alert consciousness which, when focused on the world around it and expressed through language, produces fiction that almost seems to breathe on its own. This is the kind of fiction Tessa Hadley writes—so skilled and true that it makes us a little ashamed of our failure to see what her clever observers never seem to miss.

Bloom Post End

Evelyn Somers is a fiction writer and the long-time associate editor of the Missouri Review, as well as a freelance book editor of all prose genres, from scholarship to young-adult fiction. Her own fiction has appeared in venues as various as Georgia Review and The Collagist. She lives with her husband and teenagers in central Missouri, in a former apartment house that is the inspiration for her blog Big Strange House. You can follow her on Twitter at@evelynsomers13.

Click here to read previous features by Evelyn Somers.

Homepage photo credit: Vadim Timoshkin via flickr

2 thoughts on ““The Live Wire of the Life”: the Fiction of Tessa Hadley

  1. Pingback: In the Media: 8th March 2015 | The Writes of Woman

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