The Past, by Tessa Hadley - book review: Neurotic siblings see something nasty in the outhouse

Jonathan Cape - £16.99

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The Independent Culture

There are two buildings at the heart of Tessa Hadley’s new, delicately wrought novel, each loaded with its own history, each decaying into the future. The first is an old rectory, which has been passed down to a set of four siblings who use it intermittently, with little thought to its upkeep. Led by Alice, the eldest daughter, they must decide what to do with it over a final three-week holiday. Roland, the only brother, is newly married, for the third time; Fran’s husband is off gigging, leaving her with her two children; and Harriet, ageing and awkward, pines for love. The other building to feature in this story is a worker’s cottage, built deep in the forest and entirely isolated, which acts for the younger generation as both the locus of dreams and desires, and of deep fear, thrills and superstition; it eventually becomes the site for a pathetic fallacy, almost Lawrentian in its passion.

There are plenty of hushed interiors, and dappled woods. And, as is usual in a Hadley novel, there are many moments of clarity and grace. Mirrors, reflections and light are recurring motifs, as if to emphasise the latent ambivalence of things. Hadley’s characters are languid, near-static; imbued with slanting light, they bicker, go for walks, attend dinner parties and gradually unravel. The general mood and tone is that of a Joanna Hogg film – in particular Archipelago, in which a genteel family meets and falls apart.

In The Past, tensions are stretched further by the arrival of two outsiders, in the form of Pilar, Roland’s Argentine wife, and Kasim, the young son of Alice’s ex-boyfriend. These two are stark reminders of the political realities that are current in the rest of the world which barely impinge upon the family as they mope about the house. They also function as objects of lust – and not always for the people you’d expect.

Fran’s children are particularly well drawn: little, golden-haired Arthur and his dreamy, lace-dress wearing sister Ivy, who build a world out of the things they see around them, filling it with mystery. Stumbling across a dead dog in the cottage, they turn the place into a quasi-religious site, making offerings to the “Dead Women” out of scraps of old porn mags that litter the floor. This taut strand is the most involving, the contrast between the children’s reality and the grown up’s version  believable and with the lucent quality of a dream. When Arthur’s beautiful locks are finally chopped off, the reader is genuinely shocked: innocence has already been lost, and the complexities of childhood shade into new understanding.

Less convincing is Kasim, a London-born Pakistani, a capitalist and an economics student who seems to have been created for the simple expedient of throwing the bourgeois lefty siblings into relief. Yet, his moments with Molly, Roland’s 16-year-old daughter, and their burgeoning love, are delineated sympathetically and movingly. The siblings themselves tend to blur into each other: Roland is distant and clever; Alice and Harriet are both frustrated and single; Fran, whose significance is really the mainstay of the novel’s plot, barely makes an impression. While Hadley is capable of making drama out of the commonplace – a dropped iPhone, a swimming trip – the bigger crises feel engineered, as if she is trying to  prevent the novel from drifting elegantly away on a light-dappled stream.

The text is split into three, with two sections in the present book-ending a period in the past when the siblings’ mother, fleeing her revolutionary husband, returns to the rectory. This feels no different in tone, and might just as well have been set today. That may, of course, be Hadley’s point, as the objects in the house remain untouched, even down to the dialling phone. That sense of immobility seeps throughout the whole.

The rites and rituals of a family are always strange and sacred, which is something that Hadley understands very well, excelling at the deep mysteries of basic human interactions. As an artist of the claustrophobic neuroses of the middle classes, Hadley is masterful. The way that a family expands and contracts over the decades, keeping its secrets, tending to its own, exposing its hypocrisies and closing over wounds, is shown with wisdom and clarity. She also demonstrates that families, in all their troubled tangles, do leave room for hope and joy, as the book moves gracefully towards reconciliations. But this novel is really a series of luminous images; it does feel as if the matter here is more suited to a novella.

The point that the past impinges on the present in ways that we don’t understand is not a new one; but there’s no harm in making it. Houses are powerful symbols, and this  exploration of the meaning of domesticity and location is entirely delightful to savour and bathe in, with enough gorgeous touches even to revel in.