British author Tessa Hadley’s new novel “The Past” tells the story of four siblings who reunite at a house once owned by their grandparents, a tale of memory, unrequited longing, and the strange intimacy that occurs when adult siblings find themselves sharing a roof.
by Tessa Hadley
Harper, 361 pp., $26.99
It’s an old house, sitting for two centuries in a sleepy seaside town near Wales, not grand when it was built, and less so now. The characters of British author Tessa Hadley’s sixth novel “The Past” approach, in the book’s early pages, a square, white manse, “wrapped round on all four sides by garden, with French windows and a veranda at the back and a lawn sloping to a stream; the walls inside were mottled with brown damp, there was no central heating and the roof leaked.”
This isn’t on the scale of the gracious estate of Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” or the haunted, fading manor of Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger”; for this house’s current owners, there’s “always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settles over their too-hopeful idea of it.” But the peeling wallpaper and scratched floors make a compelling backdrop for Hadley’s story; the house is, like the family housed in it for three weeks one summer, crumbling and troubled, yet still whole.
Four middle-aged siblings (whose last name I don’t think we’re ever told, in the way that family members never use a surname among themselves) have arrived at the house once owned by their long-gone grandparents, for a reunion, a vacation, and a coming-to-terms with what to do with the property. Dreamy Alice brings her ex-boyfriend’s 20-year-old son Kasim (she’s vague, characteristically, on why she’s bought him); practical Fran comes with her two young children, Ivy and Arthur; resolute Harriet, the oldest of the siblings, brings a quiet, yearning unhappiness that gets poured out only in her diaries. Their rather-more-successful brother, Roland, arrives with his elegant third wife, Pilar, and his teenage daughter Molly — whose eyes quickly land on Kasim.
In softly elegant prose — this is one of those books whose language seems to float above the page — Hadley unspools a tale of memory, unrequited longing, and the strange intimacy that occurs when adult siblings find themselves sharing a roof. It takes place in three parts — two in the present day, interrupted by a central section set in the 1960s, as the siblings’ mother Jill brings her then-small children to the house — each of them thick with secrets and crowded with different perspectives, as Hadley wanders from one character’s mind to another.
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Some of these narrators are more vivid than others; in particular, Roland seems less a man in his own right than the sum of what his sisters see. But the story flows smoothly and delicately, and its setting is irresistible. Hadley, well aware of the old-house literary tradition, paints a delicious portrait of a nearby stately National Trust home that the family visits, with tourists “tramping damply round the rooms, wondering obediently at the great dining table set out with damask and silver and Wedgwood, glazed plaster fruit and dusty plaster fowl and dusty bread rolls, for the delectation of twenty guests long dead, who’d have despised them.”
But it’s the unnamed, less remarkable family home that lingers — close the pages of “The Past” and you can picture the house, smelling its faint dampness and reading the stories in its weary walls. Memory, we’re reminded, can take hold of a place and change it; like ivy encroaching on a sunlit wall.