“The Past”

A friend who reads for her day job as an editor, but reads much for pleasure as well, spent a spring-hinting-at-summer afternoon lying on her couch in sunshine reading Tessa Hadley’s new book, “The Past.” That would be a delicious way to read this book, but any way would be good to read this or another of Hadley’s fine books.

“The Past” is about four grown up siblings returning to a family home for one last summer holiday. Hadley’s plots and characters are convincing in their complexities and motivations, but I love Hadley for the precise descriptions of ordinary things she uses to build her novels.

Hadley’s word choices sometimes remain just out of reach in my internal dictionary, so I’m glad I read her latest book on my Kindle. Touching the screen enabled me to instantly define: “hieratic,” (of or concerning priests), “propitiate,” (to win or regain the favor of a god, spirit or person by doing something that pleases them), “louche,” (disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way), and “anodyne,” (not likely to provoke dissent or offense). In a paper book I might have guessed at meanings and kept going – and missed out.

Hadley describes a character reading a book: “She kicked off her shoes and after a while she would slip for warmth into that consoling space between the eiderdown and the top blanket.” “Consoling space” seems just right, not in bed or on the bed, but in a space slightly illicit – and so pleasurable.

And this, when a character tries to get a nasty image out of her mind: “The real evening was brimming and steady around her like a counter-argument to horror, its midges swarming and multiplying in the last nooks of yellow sunshine.”

Just as “nooks of yellow sunshine” comfort, ordinary beauty often provides solace. Here in the old garden: “At least it was an afternoon of balmy warmth, its sunlight diffused because the air was dense with seed floss, transparent-winged midges, pollen; light flickered on the grass, and under the silver birch leaf-shadows shifted, blotting their penny-shapes upon one another.

And the old house itself is a strong presence: “…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. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.”

Hadley gets the three sisters and their brother as they reunite, “All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.”

Hadley’s words fill this post about her book – and that’s as it should be – they’re terrific.

telephone 1

10 thoughts on ““The Past”

  1. So well put! The only problem with reading your posts first thing in the morning, especially this one, is that now all I want to do is play hooky and read novels, preferably another Hadley. xo j

  2. The Past is now at the top of my list of must reads. Thanks, Katy. I have been so over-booked lately that slipping into a consoling space and indulging in a good story sounds wonderful                 ~Jane

  3. That is a louche phone, indeed, something rakish about the receiver… I can imagine it tipped up on one of the supports, so the line is tied up, or waiting for a recipient to pick up. And about to make that horrible beeping sound those old phones made if left off the hook too long!

    I just finished the Jane Smiley trilogy which included Some Luck, Early Warning and Golden Age. Some marvelous descriptions there, too, of tensions among siblings, family reunions and ties that hold despite distance and time. I love your recommendations, Katy.

  4. I’m about a third of the way through this book, and last night came across the word “groyne,” that mystified me until I looked it up. She writes beautifully – I’ve always loved her stories in the New Yorker, but always feel a bit of distance from her characters. And maybe that’s what she intends. I’m eager to read more. And love that telephone. We still have one of those, but it seems very “un-aspidistra-like” in its pale beige presence next to my side of the bed.

  5. This sounds like a great recommendation Katy. I’m looking forward to reading it—dictionary in hand! Thanks for sharing! ❤

  6. The ‘precise descriptions of ordinary things’ you mention could also refer to your own art. I can see I’m going to have to read this book!

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