Short stories are very hard to get right, at least for this reader. They don't tend to be my favorite type of writing to read. While their length makes them ideal for reading in small bursts, especially nice for those of us who spend so much time in carpools or sitting at sports practices in which we are not participants, they can also feel too small or too spare to be complete and very often feel incomplete and unsatisfying. Tessa Hadley, in her new collection, Married Love and Other Stories, has avoided these common pitfalls of short stories and created a complete and intricately crafted collection of tales about ordinary people muddling through their lives and relationships and the domestic dramas and non-events that give shape to their existence.
Hadley's writing is controlled and tightly composed as she creates her characters and their particular circumstances. Every nuance of speech and even their smallest of actions is considered and carefully constructed to give the reader the measure of not only the character but their entire life in relation to each other, outside events, and the one small space in time captured within the short story. The stories all focus on relationship and the ways in which people together are not what they seem, going along living their lives of quiet desperation or hiding momentous events of little importance even while tiny flashes of unvarnished truth wink from their everyday, generally unremarkable lives. What Hadley has done so well is that an instant or several minor instances in her characters' lives are richly complex and representative of the whole of their lives. They are the people around us. They are universal. They are us.
The title story tells of a young woman determined to marry her brilliant music professor who is forty-five years her elder and the slow dawning realization about the lack of brilliance in the mundanity of everyday married life as the years pile up. The other stories are just as firmly set in the unremarkable everyday as the first one and yet they all resonate with profound emotional insight. A woman helping a friend clean an industrial building reflects on her family and her relationship with them, especially her army son, as she scrubs walls clean and unplugs a filthy sink. A girlfriend and boyfriend meet each others' families, realizing that they are outsiders, disappointing and different. A young man searches out his wealthier cousin to make her acquaintance but is less drawn to her than to her sly companion who knows him for who he is. A girl lurks around the edges of her parents' party in the company of the strange, pitiable young man who is her mother's hanger-on. A brother delayed coming home from abroad worries about his unreachable sister after he sees her Facebook status change. A young woman living at home in the aftermath of her brother's suicide tries to slink through her life unnoticed until she starts to move beyond being defined by his death. These are just some of the stories but they are representative of the whole.
There is nothing particularly remarkable happening in any of the stories in the collection but Hadley has managed to catch them so perfectly and illuminate them so fully that they feel entirely complete and self-contained. They are densely emotional despite their commonplace events and they highlight the interior life, the secret feeling we so carefully conceal from the world. Hadley has deftly peeled back the surface and shown the intense swirl beneath the skin. There is not much happiness to be found in the stories but rather than its opposite depression, there's more an undertone of resignation running through many of them. And while there's a lot of truth to the resignation, that's a little depressing in and of itself. Short story fans will definitely not want to miss this offering but those who don't often read short stories should also appreciate the masterly writing here as long as they aren't looking for happy, feel-good stories.
For more information about Tessa Hadley and the book visit this British Council Literature page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.