- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007

Tessa Hadley wrote her doctoral thesis on Henry James and has written a book (“Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure”) on the master’s style. Here, in her third novel after the critically acclaimed “Accidents In The Home” and the not-so-well-received “Everything Will Be All Right,” she pays a deserving tribute to her dissertational subject and her inspiration for writing.

The novel is set in Cardiff, Wales, and revolves around the life of Kate Flynn, a middle-aged academic who has decided to take a break from teaching and return to care for her mother, Billie, who is suffering from rapidly advancing dementia.

In the opening scene of the novel, a stray swan comes looping down on the road and strikes a car when Kate is driving home from London. The occupant of the car is Suzie, the wife of David Roberts, a childhood acquaintance of Kate’s. This small incident reverberates through the novel as Suzie imagines the dead spirit of David’s first wife Francesca speaking to her from beyond the grave by way of the dead swan.

To the public health professional in David, all talk of such superstition is gibberish, but Suzie takes it up with Kate as well, at a time when so much is happening in Kate’s life that one starts to look upon Suzie’s whims as only innocent questions into the dark.

Ms. Hadley is especially gifted in taking such ordinary motifs and imbuing them with meaning and substance only so they return later in the novel to pack a robust picture of life within the folds of the pages.

Kate’s family home is a relic of the past where three generations of her family have stayed, and it is a sort of mini-memorial to an era when her family was prosperous. But now, she has returned to her “estate” and with a senile woman to care for, the novel sets us firmly in the grip of dark, mildly tragic territory.

But Ms. Hadley is a luxuriant writer, and her turns of phrase are observantly composed. She welcomes us into her story with an effortless elan and narrates her tale with an easy simplicity.

Kate and David strike up a rapport due to a shared interest in music, but Kate also finds herself the focus of attention by David’s teenage son, Jamie. The lad shows an initial interest in Kate because of her knowledge of Fransesca, who was Jamie’s mother. But the attraction becomes more intense along the way.

Kate is undoubtedly the heroine here, though she does not always display very heroic or even noble qualities. Confused about her relationship with a teenager, and reclining for support on David after Billie passes away suddenly, she is both in the groove and outside it. Tethered to an irrepressible cynicism, she yet emerges clean in the mess that follows her break-up with Jamie.

As a portrait of marital life gone awry, David and Suzie’s relationship is explored with a sense of dramatic action taking place behind the scenes. Suzie, a school teacher, has taken to living with New Age hippies, apparently without reason. But Ms. Hadley enmeshes the incident of the dead swan with the narrative to push forth the idea of the distance between the couple.

However, when David returns home one evening to Suzie bathing in the tub, the smell of another woman (perhaps Kate?) on him, Suzie seeks no explanation; rather, she looks upon it as a quid pro quo for her own past woolly-headedness. It’s a well-etched scene, striking in its exactness.

My personal dark horse among the characters is Billie, who comes alive as a loving woman being cared for by a rather impatient daughter. Submissive, staying behind the scenes, she is a picture-perfect exemplar of maternal softness. Her slow, quiet loss struck me as a very personal blow.

What Ms. Hadley is notably adept at is drawing out ordinary, familial scenes and apportioning them such bold strokes of realism that the characters and the surroundings become enticingly visual — the richness of her descriptions need only be matched by the imagination of the reader.

Vikram Johri is a freelance writer in New Delhi, India.

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