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Clever Girl, By Tessa Hadley

High culture and low life embrace in a novel of youthful promise foiled by maternal bonds

Ten-year-old Stella lives with her widowed mum in rented rooms in run-down Sixties Bristol. Top of the class, Stella loves horses and reading. When her mother remarries and they move, teenage Stella meets Valentine. With his Caravaggio cheekbones and intellectual swagger, he lures her away from The Forsyte Saga towards Beckett and Burroughs, from hoping to meet boys on the school bus to the ecstasy of drugs and bohemian posturing.

Never having ventured beyond Torquay, Stella dreams of running off to Paris with Valentine and avoiding the boring existence of her capable mother and dutiful stepfather. She longs for her real life to begin. But, when it does, it isn't what she was expecting. "I wasn't that clever, was I?" says Stella. Pregnant and abandoned, she drops out of school to have her son. Now she feels cheated, "as if the books I'd loved had held out a promise of strong, bright, meaningful happenings they couldn't deliver".

The Seventies see Stella serving in a café, as a skivvy in a private school, joining a commune with its mandatory lesbian couple. There's a second baby. Later she has an affair with a married man, and goes on to get a degree in English Literature (a First, of course.) Saved by French feminist critics and Anglo-Saxon, proving she really is a clever girl, Stella decides against a PhD. Along the way both a cousin and a lover are murdered.

As a first-person narrative, it's sometimes hard to remember this is not a memoir. There's a curious lack of suspense. That's partly because Stella, looking back in her fifties, keeps interjecting about what will happen. Hadley is over-fond of parenthesis and starting a paragraph with "I ought to explain, before I go on" weakens the narrative pull. It may be true that "disaster comes, without any fanfare", but the odd bugle wouldn't hurt.

Hadley is at her best when recalling how it felt growing up 40 years ago, but also how maternal bonds both reward and frustrate. She has a deserved reputation for her careful observation, whether the biscuity smell of a woman's nylons or face-powder stuck in wrinkles. And her images are pleasing - Stella breaking "the skin of the day"; "lilies of the valley set out on a forced march down the cracks between the pavings".

Introducing characters and story-lines only to drop them, Hadley reflects the randomness of reality. Yet is that enough? Stella rages: "Why must the world of real things always be relegated to second place, as if it was a lesser order, as if everything abstract was higher and more meaningful?" Clever Girl shows why.