The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 29 June 2017

The Past

by Tessa Hadley

There is almost a subgenre of novels that tell the stories of people returning to a home, most of which are steeped in memories good and bad, of childhoods, romances, lost ancestors, unfulfilled dreams and opportunities. We live with our memories, variously trying to forget them or trying to make sense of them, as if seeking some secret there that we didn't grasp then but that we somehow expect to grasp now. That yearning for meaning in the past is ultimately futile. What secrets to living that we don't know right now are unlikely to come to light upon reflection decades from now. We make of life what we can, in the moment, though we usually refuse to accept that. Author Tessa Hadley knows that well, as revealed in this tightly circumscribed novel.

This is the story of three sisters (Alice, Fran, Harriet) and one brother (Roland), some spouses, children and friends, on an annual holiday to the family homestead in a seaside region with a view of the distant hills of Wales. This is the house of their grandparents, a vicar and his wife, and the scene of rosy childhood memories and the reflections on some of the tragedies that come with life. We meet each of the characters and travel with them in the moors that surround the house and nearby church. We get a sense of their tragedies and yearnings. Then, half way through the novel, we lurch back to a time when their mother was alive, a young half-revolutionary in 1968, struggling with an unfaithful husband and four young kids. We visit this past, one that the four siblings can hardly remember, and then return to the present, all in gentle leaps that feel realistic, vital, and uncontrived.

In the present again, the glancing interactions in the opening chapters come to fruition in various realistically clumsy ways. The haunted landscape, the dank rooms of an abandoned cottage, the darkening weather, all portend the complications of familial and romantic interaction. Everyone, adults and children alike are still discovering the world around them, the secrets of intimacy and dreams, all the sorts of things the adults are always reflecting upon with the reminders of family history all around. The book is damp and shadowed, with its lush, almost lurid, descriptions of nature, landscape, life and decay. There is, of course, a sexual undercurrent throughout. Hadley keeps the story intimate and close to the ground, with many unspoken secrets and long-held yearnings. It plays out in a rather British manner, its characters witholding their feelings, preferring instead to live in a world of hurt. What happens to the family if the homestead is let go? Everyone with ties to it has to ask themselves what the place means. And so, too, the author grapples, as in all good stories, with the question of Time and what it does to us, how it serves us and how it abuses us. The book is rather direct in its intent, but its effects sneak up on the reader.

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