Reading Tessa Hadley’s new novel, The Past, which I bought THE DAY IT CAME OUT on January 5th but couldn’t start until I’d finished the Barbara Pym novel I was deep into. (Excellent Women; more on that later.)
I think I’m not as enamored of this novel as I expected to be, but I’m only a third of the way through it so, too soon to make a total judgment, and anyway my mild disappointment might have more to do with the way I acquired the book than anything to do with the writing itself. It was a pre-ordered hardcover purchase—la di da— when truthfully, so much of the pleasure I get from reading is in the discovery of the book (or zine or blog), the accident of finding a wonderful writer while browsing the library shelves (or distro catalog or internet), and realizing they’ve got 8 more novels (or whatever) to enjoy before I move on: An orgy of reading. (Which, incidentally, is what I’ve decided 2016 will be for me. An orgy of reading. For whatever reason I’ve recently been devouring reading material even more lustily than usual, and I’ve used the word orgy to describe this feeling several times now to my husband, who finds it disgusting. But you get the point.)
The Past is about an annual family retreat to the beautiful (if mold-mottled) country home of the grandparents, who are no longer living. The house itself doesn’t have much longer to go, either, and this may be the last time all the children and grandchildren come together here. Siblings Alice, Harriet, Fran, and Roland and their various partners and / or children are there for three weeks one summer, and we are given (at least occasional) knowledge of all of their thoughts. I find myself connecting to parts of Alice’s flamboyant personality: She hates the thought of getting older, and dresses in an elegant, quirky style; she applies her aesthetic to every room she spends time in, too. But I also relate to Roland’s need for his work (he’s an academic as well as a [sorta] popular writer) to give him a sense of identity and pride. At times I’ve felt like Harriet, who is solitary and stern, and seems to hide some essential part of herself from herself. And though this is something of a throwaway moment about Kasim, the twenty-something son of Alice’s ex, I found myself agreeing heartily:
“…his room [that] was too tidy and too empty: austere as a cell, with only a thin rug on bare floorboards, the walls painted a horrible ice pale blue. This decor seemed to stand for a certain kind of middle-class Englishness he loathed, chilly and superior and withholding, despising material comfort.”
I’m American and can’t really speak to the Englishness of this, but there is most certainly a type of person in this country who keeps a house like this, and I know a few of them, and they make me weary too, with their spartan lifestyles and unassailable life choices—organic, classic, plastic-free. I like traditional, even rustic decor, I do; I favor hardwood floors and good furniture in a simple style, and those are in fact what I have in my own house. But I also like to bring home piles of secondhand sweaters and dresses from the thrift store, and hang funny 80s album covers on the wall, and eat a cheeseburger in front of the TV. I have a tape dispenser on my desk that looks like a high-heeled lady’s pump, and a growing collection of temporary tattoos. It’s the superior and withholding part of the description that resonates with me. It’s so apt. When I’m in a home like that I feel the reproach of the wan color schemes, the art-directed perfectness of the single good overcoat hanging from a wrought-iron hook. I often feel pulled between this kind of serene simplicity and the abundance and diversity I crave, but in the end I think I’ll keep my jumble of six thrift-shop coats, so I’ll always be able to choose one that matches the mood I’m in.