The Past by Tessa Hadley


What a set-up this book has: four adult children gather for one last month-long vacation at the grandparents' old place where they had spent time as children. Very quickly their individual identities, as well as the alliances among them and irritations with each other come through. There's the woman who arrives first so she can have a long walk alone to steel herself to being around them, the one who arrives without her key, bringing along her ex-boyfriend's nearly-grown son, the grumpy one who arrives with groceries and immediately begins to cook, and finally the son who doesn't arrive with his beautiful new wife until the next day. So delicious.  

Through their memories we learn some about their grandparents and their mother Jill, who had died young. The book is divided into three sections, the first and last are titled "The Present," while the middle section "The Past" describes a time in the life of their mother when she brought her three children back home to her parents. The Oxford-educated Jill was having a crisis, wondering where her ambitions for her intellectual life had gone:

Yet this tempestuous life she had instead wasn't anything less. It was surely wrong to think that reading and intelligence had to float somewhere above the thickness of real experience. She was so glad to be in her solid woman's body — used, by men and by her children who'd come into the world through it.

She recalls how it had begun with her feckless husband:

Once, they had been equal in their separate freedoms. They had set out to have children as lightly as if they were playing house, and now her necessarily domestic life bored him, and she was bound to it in her body and imagination. This imbalance was fated, built into their biology.

 Along with the family dynamics and occasional blow-ups, the author treats us to wonderful descriptions like this one:

A stream ran down the field, bisecting it, conversing urgently with itself, its cleft bitten disproportionately deep into the stony ground and marked against the field's rough grass by the tangle of brambles that grew luxuriantly all along it, profuse as fur, still showing a few late white flowers limp like damp tissue, and heavy with berries too sour and green to pick yet, humming with flies.

I love the description of Fran (the cook's) 10-year-old daughter who loves to dress in her own unique style: "Ivy in a spangled waistcoat, with a scarf knotted under her chin, was disconcerting, a miniature old crone."

The pace of the unfolding dramas is deliberate, with a pause for the backstory in "The Past" where we learn more about Jill, as well as their grandmother. Then, when we return to "The Present,"  it picks up speed and is roaring along near the climaxes.

A thoroughly satisfying book.

Tessa Hadley, The Past, Harper, 2016, 320 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library and from Amazon. Yet another book that UVa does not have.

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