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Childhood Resentments Mix With Tragedy In 'The Past'

DAVE DAVIES (HOST): This is FRESH AIR. British writer Tessa Hadley has published many of her short stories in the New Yorker, and she's also written six novels. Her latest novel is called "The Past." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says readers shouldn't be misled by that rather bland title. MAUREEN CORRIGAN (BYLINE): Tessa Hadley's novel "The Past" doesn't make a first great impression. Its title is bland, and its plot promises to be as contrived as a Hallmark holiday movie - not that I would know what any of them are like. Hadley's story centers on four adult siblings - three sisters and their brother - who gather together at their grandparents' house, deep in the English countryside. The sibs, along with their own children and the brother's new third wife, have agreed to spend a final summer vacation together - three full weeks - after which they'll put the old family manse up for sale. Predictably, before the first gin and tonic is stirred, nerves begin to fray and ancient childhood resentments bubble up. For sure, we readers are being invited once more into the well-worn sitting room of standard domestic drama. Except with Hadley as our astute, intrepid host, there's nothing conventional about this experience. The Brits are good at producing novelists like Hadley, whose stories at first seem to be prim and unassuming, perhaps even gently comic, but then let loose with surgically sharp readings of human frailty and plot complications full of mundane malice. I'm thinking particularly of literary sisters in stealth, like Barbara Pym and Penelope Lively. We get whispered intimations from Hadley early on that this family vacation is doomed to go off-road. Youngest sister Fran turns up with her two small and sometimes sour children but not with her musician husband. When her dramatic older sister Alice starts probing into her marital troubles, Fran quickly gets defensive, and words are exchanged. Here is how Hadley's omniscient narrator nails the experience of being reunited with someone you share a long history with.

(Reading) Both sisters managed to be offended. They sulked for five minutes and couldn't forgive each other until they forgot about it and went back to their gossip, which circled eternally. All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence. They knew one another so well - all too well - and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult and twists and turns of one another's personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.

The intruder into this longtime family romance is brother Roland's new wife Pilar, a lawyer born in Argentina who's trim and beautiful and self-possessed, and who therefore stirs up resentments galore among the sisters. That's no surprise. But what is a surprise is the erotic longing Pilar stirs up in Harriet, the eldest of the siblings. At one point, Harriet sneaks into the bedroom shared by Roland and Pilar and pulls on a red silk blouse hanging in Pilar's closet. Harriet wants to be inside something Pilar will wear, and the moment is delicate and private until Harriet glimpses herself in a dresser mirror.

(Reading) The blouse made her grotesque. It insulted her as vividly as a slap or a derisory remark. Its brilliant red sucked away color from her skin, and its low neck sagged against her jutting, freckled collarbones. Reaching up inside the transparent material, she touched her breast. Its flesh was cold, nosing against her hand like an old dog.

That passage gives you a taste of Hadley's distinctive tone. She's a witty writer, yet quite pagan in her chill, unredemptive worldview. Small, random actions throughout the past blossom into muted moments of tragedy and lost opportunity - an awareness of doors closing with a thud. The final moment of this novel in particular is a killer. From the coziest and most familiar of fictional materials, Hadley has created a remarkable story, as disturbing as it is diverting.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Past" by Tessa Hadley. By some estimates, more than 30 million people in the world today live in slavery - toiling in mines, quarries and shrimp farms without pay or any hope of escape. On the next FRESH AIR, Kevin Bales, co-founder of the organization Free The Slaves, talks about his reporting on humans held in bondage and the environmental damage slavery does. Bale's new book is "Blood And Earth." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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