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

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Past.

Tessa Hadley tests the boundaries of love and what it means to be family in this bucolic tale set in England’s West Country. First to arrive at the family home of Kington is daughter Alice with her young friend Kasim, who has only come to this reunion to get away from his mother. Together with Fran, Alice’s other sister, and her children Ivy and Arthur (both nine and six), Alice is capable of affecting a world-wise attitude to her family and the house, so beautiful with its French windows and back veranda and a lawn that slopes down to a stream. Also present is older sister Harriet, who loves and communes with nature and is probably the most attached to Kington. Later to arrive are Roland, his new wife, Pilar--an Argentinean lawyer--and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Molly, who unexpectedly finds herself attracted to Kasim.

Once an educated minister and popular poet, the family’s grandfather has let Kington remain much as it was in 1969 when his daughter Jill arrived from London, running from a collapsing marriage. Indeed, nothing about the house has changed--“perhaps because there was no money to change anything anyway.” As the buzzing, rustling summer afternoon proves too hot for birdsong, the family settle in for three weeks of reading and sleeping, carefully navigating the house and each other. Buoyed by a love that seems luxuriant and possible, “as if something lay in wait,” Alice becomes the glue that binds the siblings together as they try to decide what to do with a house that is expensive to maintain yet also loved for the way that it is.

As the lazy summer days unfold, Hadley jumps between her characters’ interior thoughts. Each reveals a cavalcade of family secrets, along with loyalties and heartbreaks that are complemented by the breathtaking beauty of the English countryside, a magical remedy for whatever burden the siblings might have. The plot is accented by Ivy and Arthur, who discover an abandoned cottage. There’s a dim memory of a first inhabitant, an old woman. The cottage itself smells awful--of leaf-rot and minerals, of Mitzi, the neighbor’s dead dog, and a series of rude pictures from magazines. While Ivy feels the burden of her responsibility for what they’ve seen, for a disconcerting moment, the usual roles as adults and children are reversed, leading the children to be drawn by the sensation of seeing themselves “from a far distance.”

Teacher Fran might be the reliable and stable head of the family, even representative of the old guard, yet it is Harriet who truly embodies the sisters' “dusty old hopeful leftism.” Harriet forms an unlikely friendship with Pilar, and the two spend mornings swimming together. While Pilar seems preoccupied and serious, aninterloper in the carefully calibrated family dynamic, she brusquely asks about Harriet’s old life as an activist for various causes. Roland is quick to remind his sisters of the shadow of Pilar’s uncle’s politics and how it has hung over her family for a generation.

The past makes its expected mark on this bucolic landscape. Back in 1969, Jill’s first passionate encounter with an old school friend adds complicity to her choice to either stay living at Kington with her mother, Sophy (whose doubts about her son-in-law mostly go unspoken), or to return to Tom in London. Tired of old opinions and indignation, rebellious Jill encapsulates the core of the novel. Hadley traces the muffling effect of Jill back in her family home as well as her three babies, “still plump and shapely,” and a life that she hopes will “be exultant with self sufficiency.” Part of Jill’s dilemma is that she dreams of somewhere on the edge of a social life, where she can be free from Tom in an environment that is not “cluttered with falsity.”

The novel shows the inevitable cracks of time, of children inexorably separating and adults being drawn together through attraction and loneliness. While Alice explores what is missing from her life, Harriet misjudges Pilar, causing her to suffer a terrible betrayal. Mixed among their grandmother’s letters are a number of slips of tissue paper wrapped round locks of blonde baby hair--perhaps another key to the past and the choices that Jill and Sophy made. The drama of the novel comes from this juxtaposition of lives, child and adult, from the present and the past. Jill’s past provides an education and a window into how different the contemporary characters look and act when filtered through the lens of age and experience.

There are no false notes, no stumbles in the rare moments of tenderness. The novel is brave and bold, reflecting a gorgeous landscape of densely packed woods carefully gathering in darkness, and a landscape pattern “as simplified as a child’s jigsaw puzzle.” As light appears on the fields “like gauze” and the huge evening sky wheels overhead “a livid electric blue,” Hadley's characters face some difficult choices and the burden of secrets, ultimately proving their mettle and resiliency.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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