By Tessa Hadley
Some books are just meant to live in and enjoy. Such is Tessa Hadley's The Past.
Four siblings arrive at various stopping places in their own lives to spend the annual three-week summer holiday in their late grandparents' country house. It was once the rectory. Just like the varying perspectives of the now middle-aged children, the connotations can be either bucolic fantasy retreat or the height of dreariness. Still, we are British and we will make the best of it.
Harriet, the eldest, seems to live in her own universe without letting real life wear her down. Alice arrives determined that everyone will have a jolly time, including Kasim. He's the 20-year-old son of her former lover who has been talked into coming down to the country. Once he arrives, the lack of cell phone coverage is about the end of the world. That is, until Alice and Harriet's brother Roland arrives. Along for the ride are his intimidating, beautiful third wife and, more importantly to Kasim, 16-year-old Molly. Fran is the final sibling, bringing her younger children but unaccompanied by her husband.
In other hands, this would be the set-up for farce or histronics. But Hadley has an assured, subtle hand in guiding her characters to arrive at realizations about themselves and those they love most. This is Alice Munro territory in the English countryside.
For example, the way two of the sisters return to the rectory this summer recreates that feeling of returning somewhere so well known that it is a surprise to be back in the reality of what is remembered:
Fran unlocked the front door and the sisters stood hesitating on the brink of the interior for a moment, preparing themselves, recognising what they had forgotten while they were away from it -- the under-earth smell of imprisoned air, something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.
... the past of the place enfolded them as soon as they arrived, they fell back inside its patterns and repetitions, absorbed into what had been done there before.
This year, that will be true but not completely, as other things do happen.
Fran's children make a grotesque discovery in an abandoned cottage that fascinates them. As their fascination continues, the realization of what they are doing is something they wrestle with. Kasim would love to make discoveries about Molly. Roland's Argentinian wife confides in a sister who thinks she is poised to make a discovery about herself. Discoveries about family letters are the source of friction and the siblings are unsure if it makes sense to sell the property, if they should sell the property or, for one, if they want the property sold because the money would come in awfully handy.
The climax of the story and its resolutions feel real and right. Being able to enjoy a novel and say, "Oh yes, that's as it should be" was my reading experience here. There was even a To the Lighthouse moment that the tone of the work seemed to call for; to see it occur brought a small sigh of reading happiness.
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