The Past by Tessa Hadley, book review: Family loyalties put to the test

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Tessa Hadley's masterly yet understated fiction is often compared to that of the eminent Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. It's a connection she solidifies in her new novel by "borrowing" her structure directly from Bowen's 1935 novel The House in Paris, presenting the story as a triptych, split into the same three sections as the precursor text: "The Present", "The Past", and "The Present". In addition to which, the two novels are loosely linked by the same themes of family secrets and issues of lineage.

The four middle-aged Crane siblings, the three sisters – Harriet, Alice, and Fran – and their brother Roland gather for one final holiday together in their grandparents' old house in the English countryside. Both Harriet and Alice are single, though the latter has brought an unexpected guest with her: Kasim, the 20-year-old son of an ex-boyfriend. He's practically family, she explains, oblivious to her sisters' consternation. Fran, meanwhile, is joined by her two children, while Roland brings both his 16-year-old daughter and his third wife Pilar, an elegant Argentinian lawyer, viewed by suspicious sisters-in-law as "a fearful and impregnable unknown country."

The house party settles into the "buzzing, rustling" summer days, the characters orbiting each other in a variety of overlapping cliques, each of which is dependent on different allegiances – some long since set in stone, others freshly forged – in what would look, rendered in graphic form, like a complicated Venn diagram. When it comes to domestic drama Hadley is without rival, and here her considerable talent is poured into an astonishingly astute grasp of "the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence".

She can sum up the thorny intricacies of a sibling relationship in a single sentence; the love and the rivalry, the resentment and comforting familiarity all bundled up: "They sulked for five minutes and couldn't forgive each other, until they forgot about it and went back to their gossip, which circled eternally."

In the novel's middle section, "The Past", the setting remains the same but we step back in time to 1968 when Jill, the Cranes' mother (long since dead in "The Present"), along with her children, arrives unexpectedly at her parents' house having fled her philandering husband. In some ways it reads like a slightly disconnected short story, which reminded me of Hadley's previous novel, Clever Girl – a tale of thwarted ambition in drab '60s Bristol when an unplanned pregnancy sends her young protagonist's life off track – some of the chapters of which were previously published as stand-alone pieces. (There are also faint similarities between Stella and Jill, the latter having read Classics at Oxford where she had been "filled up with ambitions for her intellectual life," before losing herself to the demands of motherhood.)

Rather than forcing heavy-handed connections, Hadley patiently allows her reader to make the necessary inferences between the two periods for the story to hang together as a whole: which it most definitely does. This sophistication, however, makes the one flaw in the novel immediately obvious – that of a slightly clumsy subplot surrounding Pilar's parentage, an addition that reads as both flimsy and superfluous, especially since Hadley so often intuitively knows what's best left unspoken.

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