Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Past, by Tessa Hadley

The Past is beautifully written.  There’s nothing idiosyncratic or experimental or even surprising about the style—it’s just good writing.  Tessa Hadley is interested in the interrelationships of family members over three generations, how rivalries and issues that begin in childhood bubble up and flow down through generations.  She has a nuanced grasp of children—something most writers can’t manage.  In particular the six-year-old Ivy is a wonderfully drawn character.  Her brother is less well defined, but he’s still a believable child.

Ivy has a vivid imagination, and she involves her brother in her thinking about the “Women” and their power over events.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of this novel because there really isn’t any.  Rather there are a series of events, trends, that gain in momentum: a possible love affair that may occur, a seduction in progress, a marriage possibly on the wane.  But, as is the case with real life, events don’t always develop as we’d expect.  A growing sense of doom (or is this simply my imagination?) pervades the latter sections of the novel, yet doom never happens, except perhaps for one character.

The book is divided into three main sections—the first and the third are set in “The Present,” while the middle section is “The Past,” which mostly concerns the mother and grandparents of the siblings who are having their annual reunion in the first and third sections—those siblings are young children in “The Past.”  We know from the first section that certain events occurred in the past, and our knowledge of them suffuses the middle section with dramatic irony, a foreknowledge of events that haven’t occurred yet.

Coming from a family of six children, I enjoyed moments of recognition as I read about what various siblings in the family said and thought of one another.  This aspect of the novel, perhaps, was prurient.  Yet I experienced pathos as well, that sense of pity and despair for those who are about to, or who did, suffer physically and emotionally for things that happened in “the past.”

In ways The Past works in the same tradition as To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf) and Howards End (E. M. Forster).

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