cover image The Past

The Past

Tessa Hadley. Harper, $26.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-227041-2

Not much happens in this sixth novel from Hadley (Clever Girl), yet even its most quotidian events seem bathed in meaning and consequence. Set exclusively on the rambling grounds of a crumbling English cottage estate, the story follows four middle-aged siblings as they putter about their deceased grandparents’ home for three weeks, deciding whether or not to sell it. Split into three acts—two bookends that take place in the present, and one middle section that flashes back to their dead mother’s brief return to the cottage during a tumultuous time in her marriage—the book has the feeling of a disjointed structure. But like her previous works, it’s Hadley’s ability to probe the quirks of her characters’ psyches that makes this novel exceptional. Whether it’s the vain second-youngest sibling, Alice, and her habit of overcompensating for her brother’s and sisters’ inadequacies, or the introverted oldest sibling Hettie, and her secret obsession with her stuffy brother, Roland, and his sophisticated Argentinian wife (his third), Hadley has a knack for exposing each character’s most pressing vulnerabilities. Of special note are the scenes involving the teenagers at the house—Roland’s 16-year-old daughter, Molly, and Alice’s ex-boyfriend’s college-age son, Kasim. The lovebirds’ blooming infatuation with each other is palpable and awkward; it recalls the epic nature of falling helplessly, giddily in love for the first time. This is familial drama at its best—unabashedly ordinary yet undoubtedly captivating. (Jan.)