I’ve been a fan of Tessa Hadley’s writing for some time, and have loved many of her novels, such as The Master Bedroom and The London Train. Hadley’s writing is beautiful and precise; she can describe her characters’ emotions to a T, but she is also brilliant at evoking a sense of time and place.
In The Past, the rambling falling-down house set next to a stream in the English countryside becomes another character in the book. Its fate, whether it should be sold, renovated or kept as it is, has to be decided by the four grown-up siblings, grand children to a respected minister and poet. The future of the house runs as a theme through the book, and is the reason the four are united for a last 3-week summer holiday in Kington.
Alice is a failed actress, and at 46, the middle daughter. She has asked a young student of economics, Kasim, who is the son of Alice’s ex-lover, to accompany her. Alice's older sister, Harriet arrives alone, while her older brother, Roland, brings his new wife – his third – the glamorous and exotic Argentinian, Pilar. There’s also a dreamy teenage daughter, Molly. The youngest of the sisters, Fran comes with her two children.
So as the reader, you think the scene is set nicely for at least some serious family fall-outs, or even some disaster, be it loss of life, dignity or virginity.
The tension is beautifully built in the first half of the novel, where we find about the siblings' childhoods, how their mother died when Fran was still very young, and how they lost their grandparents, the original occupants in Kington. There’s the promise of a burgeoning romance or two.
This is when the story moves back to the past, and we meet the grandparents, Sophie and the Vicar, and Jill, their daughter. We also get a glimpse into Jill’s turbulent marriage with her husband, the idealistic journalist, Tom.
When the story moves back to the present, the events which the author had been building up to in the first part come to pass – but mostly off camera.
And this is my only gripe with The Past. Tessa Hadley sets up the action beautifully, tantalisingly, only to let the events unfold without allowing the reader in. Only one of the outcomes is described in the present, and that too happens so quickly, as a reader you could have blinked and it’s done. The author even states this herself, ‘The whole scene was over in a matter of a few seconds.’
Still, I would recommend this novel, for the pleasure of its use of the English language and sentences such as the one below:
‘Kasim picked another stem of grass and dusted its drooping, plumy head, heavy with seeds, against Molly’s cheeks and her closed, protuberant, mauve eyelids.’
To buy The Past by Tessa Hadley click here or tap on the image above.