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Married Love, By Tessa Hadley

Perfect domestic miniatures, illuminated by flashes of insight

The short stories of the novelist Tessa Hadley, of which this is her second collection, are often like movie clips of lives in transit, their small shifts of focus yielding up flashes of psychological insight.

In "Journey Home", an art historian of a solitary disposition stands transfixed by Titian's Pietà until the drumbeat of anxiety regarding the whereabouts of his vulnerable sister draws him back into present-day crises. In arguably the best story, "Friendly Fire", two very ordinary women companionably cleaning a King's Lynn factory office become briefly illuminated, almost elevated, in a sudden revelation of suffering, as one checks her phone messages in dread of news about her soldier son, while her friend watches with sympathy.

Hadley's settings and concerns are invariably British, but not always contemporary. Several historical tales throw up universal themes. The young man in 1920s Tynemouth, in "The Trojan Prince", has the comforting familiarity of a Dickensian hero. Upwardly mobile he may be, plotting marriage into a higher social echelon, but he discerns that happiness lies with the girl he has tried to leave behind. Class difference raises its head again in "A Mouthful of Cut Glass", a 1970s-set story about a mismatched student couple who stay with one another's families. Here, sharp characterisation, subtle observation and humour give the well-trodden theme fresh flavour.

Hadley excels at the domestic context, at pinpointing the particular quiddity on which an individual character turns; at marking the tiny swings of allegiance in human relationships. "In the Country" displays all these characteristics: here a married couple, Julie and Ed, spend the day at a family party for Ed's mother's birthday. Following an ill-chosen remark of Ed's, Julie finds herself realigning ranks and revealing secrets from her past to another outsider. "In the Night" is an amusing observation of the adult world told from the heartless viewpoint of children. Tom and Kristen spurn a drippy young man they call "the Pune", whom their mother has taken under her wing, but when the Pune and Kristen are thrown together, hiding at a grown-ups' party, they find an unexpected moment of commonality.

While Hadley's intent is too serious for her writing ever to be called comic, her tales, told in light, deft prose, are engagingly lifted by humour. In the whimsical title story, bespectacled 19-year-old Lottie defies her left-wing liberal family by marrying an ageing music lecturer and spawning three daughters. The author pokes gentle fun at the entire cast, but Lottie's sobering journey to full awareness of what she's done to her life progresses all the while in a quiet minor key beneath.

There is surprise and variation in form, too. Some stories start schematically but turn into something more complex or unexpected: in one, "three heirs, in three separate taxis, converge" on their dead godmother's house, but what suggests itself to be a conflict about a will becomes a more wistful piece about lost connections. Characters are often seen trying to come to terms with past disappointment or tragedy. "The winter after her brother killed himself," is how "She's the One" begins (Hadley is excellent at arresting first lines), going on to describe an unusual friendship that develops between two wildly different women. Hadley's endings are rarely neatly tied; it's as though she prefers to leave her readers to revisit and work everything out themselves. This nearly always delivers rich pleasures.

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