Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Review: The Past by Tessa Hadley

Some books race along through a careening plot to their inevitable end. Others are more mesmeric, hypnotizing the reader with their feel rather than any internal movement. Tess Hadley, called one of Britain's pre-eminent contemporary writers is definitely more of the mesmeric bent. Her latest novel, The Past, is a domestic, character driven novel centered on four siblings who have returned to their grandparents' country home for a three week holiday to determine the fate of this house that keeps them so rooted together.

Alice, the flaky, free-spirited one, arrives first with Kasim, the twenty year old son of her ex-boyfriend, in tow. True to her personality, having forgotten her keys, she takes Kasim for a ramble while she waits for the others to arrive. And they eventually do all arrive: Harriet, the serious oldest; Fran, with her young children Ivy and Arthur but without her musician husband; and Roland, the only brother, with his teenaged daughter Molly and his brand new third wife, Pilar, a glamorous and young Argentinian lawyer whose polish seems at odds with the homely, British surroundings and these middle aged British siblings. As the four siblings settle into what might be their last three weeks in the old house together, tensions and understated, half-forgotten, or ignored potentials simmer slowly underneath their every day interactions. The children are left to their own devices, exploring inside and out, making an unpleasant discovery that snags their imaginations, and witnessing and abetting, if not entirely understanding, the burgeoning sexual attraction between Kasim and Molly. Each of the characters stumbles, even in this familiar place and amongst family, their misunderstandings, small hurts and irritations, and speculations driving the story as much as their casual, familiar regard for each other.

The novel is visually rich and descriptive, engaging all of the senses with its musty leaf mold and air of genteel decay weaving through the season, the house, and the relationships. The siblings are intricately bound up together and in their decision about the house. They both converge and diverge as adults here in this place. The three sectioned narrative, the present followed by a section set in the past and circling back to the present again, serves to ground the characters in their long held roles, adding depth to who they are as adults in the present. The story is a slow and torpid read but even in its slowness, there is a constant state of expectation that this overheated, blowsy summer will come to a sad and brittle end. Hadley's writing is sumptuous and decadent but the characters themselves, almost uninteresting by comparison with the natural world around the house, were overshadowed by the heavy inexorability of the outcome. The final scene in the novel is beautiful in its poignancy, skillfully hearkening back to the past that ties them all together, but not even the revelations and climaxes in the final third of the novel were enough to make for a plot of any sort. While beautifully written, there was no movement, just extended character development, and unfortunately that makes for a rather fatiguing read.

For more information about Tessa Hadley, take a look at her page for the British Council or her agent's client page. Check out the book's Good Reads 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 the book for review.


  1. Ooh, this does sound good. I've seen it on a bunch of "books to read in 2016), so I'm glad to hear that it is living up to the hype.

  2. I so appreciate an author who can engage all the senses.
    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  3. Well if it's torpid and fatiguing -- I think I will pass on it. But I'm glad you reviewed as I had picked up and considered it.

  4. Up higher in the TBR pile this one goes. You make it sound so good.


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