The Past
Tessa Hadley
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Buy *The Past* by Tessa Hadleyonline

The Past
Tessa Hadley
320 pages
January 2016
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Past.

In language that veers from prose to sheer poetry, Hadley explores family ties, past and present, in England’s West Country, a landscape brimming with nature’s bountiful summer feast. There a decaying family home is suffused with memories as four siblings gather for a three-week visit, perhaps the last before life takes them in different directions. When emotions batted from one to another grow too burdensome, the outdoors calls, offering respite and relief but for the secrets of an abandoned cottage, where two precocious children stumble upon life’s random truths.

The house in Kington belonged to the grandparents, then the newly-separated mother of four children, who died prematurely while her spouse fled his responsibilities. Long in ill-repair, the house remains as in childhood memory: faded wallpaper, forgotten stains, china passed from one generation to another, never sufficient funds to modernize or set things right as time lends cracks and fissures. They have returned, children grown, to talk about the future of the family legacy. First is Harriet, a lonely loner who “was rusty, the joints of her spirit creaked and groaned with disuse”. Fran and Alice arrive in quick succession: Fran, disgruntled by her spouse’s absence, has brought Ivy, nine (prone to tantrums) and Arthur, six, his golden curls yet unshorn.

Alice, forty-six, has dragged along Kasim, twenty, the son of a former lover. Both eccentric and romantic, Alice yearns for a new love, “painfully stalled by beginning to lose her looks”, dismayed when confronted by her image in a mirror, albeit one clouded with age. The center of the sisters’ affection, Roland, is dramatically delayed, not arriving until the following day with his third (new) wife, Pilar, an exotic beauty from Argentina. Molly, sixteen, Roland’s daughter by his first wife, tags along with the couple. The sisters are put out: Roland expects them to adapt graciously to each new spouse while drifting farther from their youthful claims upon his singular manhood.

Hadley gathers this close-knit tribe under the generational roof, where the old and new collide and ancient grievances awaken, petty quarrels drift and dissipate as the extended visit begins. Varied intimacies, yearnings, and regrets emerge as each day passes, adults adjusting to the scarce privacy of too many in too few bedrooms. Each sibling reveals, in time, the secrets they hide behind predictable mannerisms, from Alice’s penchant for prodding ghosts of the past and a constant need for attention to Harriet’s solitary and unassuming demeanor. With an unexpected but subdued affection for the striking Pilar, the plain woman’s heart is surprisingly unmoored. Once the prince, the pedantic philosopher seems to fade against the varied colors of these multi-hued women, easily calmed by the ministrations of his new bride.

The children, even Kasim and Molly, exist on another plane, hardly noticed by the siblings but for Ivy’s extravagant tantrums as her fantasies battle with the world’s harsh lessons. Arthur shadows his sister, a small protector who misses nothing. Eventually, he is ambushed by his mother, scissors in hand: “In the general mood of ominous expectation, she felt resigned to the truth that everything good had to be spoiled eventually.” Generally bored, Kasim resists Molly’s appeal but finds her easily a more delightful companion than Alice, a once-vital woman, now an irritation with her mournful eyes and prodding insistence.

This patchwork of memories and personalities is irresistible, intriguing, and uncomfortably familiar as the fears and flaws of siblings peel façade from truth. The story is so achingly real, the reader drawn vicariously into the family circle, enjoying--even caring--for silly people so like ourselves, soothed by familiar surroundings yet conscious of the passage of time. Hadley captures this time and place perfectly, whole life bound in telling phrases: “It made her fearful, to see how far her sister was straying from her old self, undoing the vexed knots that held her tight.” Tugged, the heartstrings create their own sweet melody.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2016

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