Tessa Hadley is an alchemist, transforming everyday life into the stuff of brilliant fiction. In previous stories and novels, like 2014’s Clever Girl, the British writer has captured the beauty, messiness and irony of family life, especially marriages. Her new novel, The Past, keeps to the domestic sphere, examining the lives of four adult siblings who gather at a country house for the summer.
Ostensibly, the vacation is to decide whether or not to sell the vicarage, the gracefully decaying home where the four were raised by grandparents after their mother’s death from breast cancer. Sisters Harriet, Fran and Alice are also curious about their brother Roland’s third wife and eager to visit with teenage niece Molly. Kasim, the son of Alice’s ex-boyfriend, tags along and also takes an interest in Molly. Meanwhile Fran’s children, Ivy and Arthur, run wild, spy on the young couple and make an unsettling discovery in an abandoned cottage in the woods. Dignified, quiet Harriet, the oldest of the sisters, relishes her private time but soon finds herself responding to one of the house guests with a passion that even she can’t contain.
There is not a lot of action in The Past. The sisters gossip about their new sister-in-law. They play cards and drink gin, watch the growing flirtation between the two young adults and, together with their brother, wonder how long they can hold on to the vicarage—and if they even want to. But just as sure as mold is growing in the long unused pantry, past arguments and unresolved jealousies and resentments have been quietly building. The present resonates with the secrets the past holds.
Hadley’s prose is irresistible and gorgeous. Descriptions of the land around the vicarage and cottage ring with a poetic intensity, and she richly evokes the sounds and smells of the outdoors: the bird calls, the wind, the summer rain moving through grasses and trees. Her thoughtful observations regarding the inner world of her characters and the outer landscape of their surroundings make this latest effort a novel of remarkable skill and scope.