Our Author of the Month for March is the novelist and short story writer Tessa Hadley. Starting her writing career relatively late – Hadley was 46 when her first novel Accidents in the Home was published in 2002 – she’s had a prolific subsequent seventeen years, publishing seven novels and three short story collections to critical acclaim. She’s also a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, where she writes with characteristic care and insight, laregly about modern fiction. Here’s our pick of her pieces.
Hadley speculates on the British interest in Scandinavia in a piece on Norwegian writer Per Petterson:
Every so often Britain is in the mood for an idea of the Scandinavian North: hard winters, social democracy, saunas, post-Protestantism and alcohol. Perhaps the success of Out Stealing Horses is connected to that of the Wallander books and TV series and the other Scandinavian crime writers, though there are no detectives in Petterson’s books and no clinching resolutions. The title of his new novel sounds like a parody of Nordic angst, but is in fact taken from a poem by Mao: ‘Fragile images of departure, the village back then./I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.’ The idea of time flowing into the irrecoverable past turns out to be central to the structure of Petterson’s novels; their stories emerge from the past crumpled and distorted, and in order for each element to be understood, it needs first to be untangled and confronted, not necessarily in chronological order. This operation of recovery isn’t transfiguring but reluctant and difficult, more like a confession or a session of analysis, with the narrator set against himself. ‘If someone had asked me, how do you feel now? I would say, it hurts right here . . . No act of will would get me out of this state, no leap of thought pull me up.’
In a thoughtful review of Helen Simpson’s story collection Constitutional, Hadley considers the eternal opposition of literature and parenthood:
Perhaps there’s a deep antagonism, anyway, between parenting and literature, both of them empathetic and imaginative; both looking into the future (the finished book, the grown-up child); both hungry to possess their maker. These tensions for women have written themselves out in literature in various ways. Alongside the sanctification of motherhood in Victorian fiction ran its orphan obsessions; mothers were yearned for but were often dead (one shouldn’t be flippant: mothers really were dead, often); plots tended to cram themselves into the narrow space of courtship between childhood and motherhood. In the Modernist period, Woolf, Rhys, Bowen and others kicked away with relief the hobbles of feminine guilt, and wrote their way into a writer-identity as free as that of their male contemporaries, making a point of avoiding as subject-matter the daily engagements of parenthood (with the significant exception of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse). It’s true that parenthood has hobbled men too, sometimes: to remind us there’s Raymond Carver’s extraordinary and perhaps not quite forgivable accusation, in his essay ‘Fires’, that his children prevented him from working on his stories. The practicalities did for him: a terrible sense of his life having been wasted sweeps over him in the laundromat, as he waits for a dryer.
Hadley’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead suggests she wasn’t entirely won over, but nonetheless presents a typically thorough exploration of Robinson’s work:
After more than twenty years she has published a second novel, Gilead. It’s not clear why it has taken so long; she suggests in one interview that there have been false starts and unfinished stories put aside. She has published in the meantime two works of non-fiction: Mother Country (1989), about the British nuclear reactor at Sellafield; and a book of essays on ‘modern thought’, The Death of Adam (1998). Instead of embodying the tension of thought as the language of Housekeeping does, the essays are heavily opinionated, and in places seem to have been written in a lather of indignation. They have Robinson’s characteristic gravity, however, and are everywhere original; nothing she thinks is glib or second-hand. A beautiful piece in The Death of Adam, ‘Psalm Eight’, on her childhood experience of religious language, illuminates the sources of the mysterious power of the prose in Housekeeping. Elsewhere, though, the essays are too often addressed as if from the prophet in the wilderness to the benighted world: as if Robinson were the only one to see merit in Calvin’s religious thought, feel impatience at the zealotry of fashionable right-mindedness, feel outrage at depredations against the environment. It is characteristic, for instance, that in a book about the history of British responses to nuclear power Robinson never mentions CND or Greenham Common, and mentions Greenpeace only in order to include it in the general excoriations (Greenpeace successfully sued).
In a review of the first of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, Case Histories, Hadley explores Atkinson’s abiding interest in absences:
Atkinson finds at the centre of family life an in-built disappointment, an emotional investment in what is missing. Charles and Isobel in Human Croquet collect things belonging to their absent mother – a shoe, a powder compact, a lock of hair – but fail to make a life for themselves in the present. In the short story ‘Temporal Anomaly’, Marianne, who has been dead for six months, gets her once ordinary life back, and now knows to appreciate ‘day after day as precious and as delicate as a rope of pearls’. The fantastic plot twists – the missing are dead and the dead are only missing, long-lost twins turn up unexpectedly, babies have been substituted at birth – are more than indulgences or decorations. Atkinson certainly takes a formalist’s pleasure in the structuring devices of Shakespearean comedy, but these devices work, when they work, because she has thought about questions of singularity, repetition, origins, chance, memory.
Check out Tessa Hadley’s novels and stories in our booklist, or visit us at 14 Bury Place.