Everything Will Be All Right by Tessa Hadley

Crowd trouble at the generation game

Come in. Meet Pearl. Well, avert your eyes actually, for, "naked save for a metal stud in her nose and a leather choker", she's ogling herself in a mirror. I'm sure your teenagers are just the same. Anyway, come downstairs: here's her mother, Zoe, trying not to worry. Off to Zoe's mother Joyce and Auntie Vera who used to live with Joyce's mother, Lil, and their five children. Are you still with us?

That's four generations in 11 pages. We'll pause before heading back to visit Joyce's childhood, with stop-offs at Uncle Dick, Kay, Ann... Other people's families can be exhausting. Everyone seems to think that he or she is the centre. After 400 pages, through recapitulation within recapitulation, we return to "now" to find that Uncle Dick "has died aged ninety-six". Who was Dick again?

It doesn't matter. The subject is family, not individuals. Tessa Hadley's second novel, Everything Will Be All Right proceeds with ironic wistfulness according to the infernal principle of begetting that animates the more forgettable parts of Scripture. Shades of the creative-writing class linger around her canny use of a travelling present tense, and a serial narrative voice. The multiplicitous marryings and begettings of new voices have an effect at once diffusive and totalising, especially when you admit (as you have to) the in-laws.

Shifting between foreground and hinterland, Hadley's characters eternally dispossess one another in a peculiarly troubling way. Lil, Joyce, Zoe and Pearl all have their say and their day, to blend back into the protean mass of family-in-time, an effect emphasised by signalling dialogue by the dash rather than quotation marks, and by the uniformity of style. This is an intriguing, complex and irritating book, which lays bare the modern passion for family trees in its nightmarish extension.

Accidents in the Home, Hadley's debut novel, attracted some foolish plaudits: "a rare and startling gem"; "tight as a snare-drum and as bright as the moon". Prose "to die for" Hadley's is not: it is too good for gush. Fine-tuned, lyrical, exact, she is adept in recreating period atmosphere, clothes, the banal everyday, where period detail enters into the condition of metaphor. Women's talk is "dark and thick and sticky as... malt and cod-liver oil".

This universal greying is the effect of Hadley's narrative principle. With every birth, the older generation recedes. Birth is, to the corporate family, a sleep and a forgetting, relegating elders to the eerie tedium of the bygone. St Augustine wrote of a "present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future". Through inhabiting these presents , Hadley reminds us of the remorselessness of time and the replaceability of selves.

"What makes now the only minute that's real at one time?" asks Pearl at the end. Leo responds with: "It's funny to think that in 10 years' time we'll both be what we're going to be." Did I care about the sententious Leo and Pearl? Not a bean.

Leo and Pearl are just the latest hand-me-downs "in the heavy chain of things misjudged between" the generations. Their young latency will bloom, disappoint and die back into the uneasy tribe. Oh, dear - other people's families.

Stevie Davies's 'Kith and Kin' will be published in February by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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