Ah. A treat for you all!
After a rather depressing patch of novels focusing on pain and death and degenerative disability, you’re probably as relieved as I am that I’m bringing you a holiday-friendly, light but satisfying, English read. After all, a tale of a family with relationships under strain is just my cup of tea – when ‘strain’ means only drama, offence, embarassments, and perceived slights rather than unmitigated awfulness.
My first read from the novelist Tessa Hadley, The Past apparently continues her exploration of families under strain and the individual relationships this throws up. It’s a character and place-focussed book, not plot-focussed – no what’ll-happen page turner here. It tells the story of a grown-up family returning to their grandparents’ empty house one summer, now their shared holiday home, preparing to spend a final three weeks there and discuss its probable sale. Although there are individual, character-based plot arcs, there’s really no driving force to the narrative – it is, in the words of one review “drifting elegantly away on a light-dappled stream.”
But before you yawn, the book is kept fresh by a present/past/present structure, each of which throws new light on the other. It’s unusual and effective to meet the adult characters before we see the child-selves. The two dominant sisters are bitingly, minutely observed in all their painful similarity and difference (although it’s true there’s some uneven characterisation in the lesser characters – the younger sister gets little attention and the brother’s new wife doesn’t stretch far out of difficult-other-from-abroad.)
And it gets better still. When The Independent’s review claimed, non-disparagingly, “this novel is really a series of luminous images,” take it all for the good, not for the shade it throws on the plotting. Because the descriptions are so strong; the countryside, the noises, the old house, the crockery even – all palpable, audible. It’s a pastoral world brought to life tenderly without overloading on sentiment; changes from the past are picked out cleanly and the view of the locals to these outsider “holiday housers” is suitably lukewarm.
The word my mind keeps returning to is light, which I’ve certainly used to critique other books before. And it’s odd given the dominance of sexual desire as a theme – usually so heady and claustrophobic a subject. But sometimes light is great – delicacy, a deft touch, non-distressing subject matter, a touch of sparkle. The Past sits in the next-door stable to The Kindness, which didn’t overwhelm me when I read it last summer but which has stayed with, and grown on, me to a remarkable degree. So my enjoyment of it may only grow in time. But I won’t leave it at that – I’ll also be hunting out Hadley’s other books (especially after the The Guardian encouragingly panted “it doesn’t really matter where you start with her, because all her books are wonderful.“) Because we’ve all got space in our lives for light family dramas done bloody well. Pack it for your holiday.