Tessa Hadley: “Bad Dreams” from TNY, 9/23/13

TNY Art by Eric Ogden

TNY Art by Eric Ogden

She had dreamed that she was reading her favorite book, the one she read over and over and actually had been reading earlier that night, until her mother came to turn off the light. In fact, she could feel the book’s hard corner pressing into her leg now through the blankets. In the dream, she had been turning its pages as usual when, beyond the story’s familiar last words, she discovered an extra section that she had never seen before, a short paragraph set on a page by itself, headed “Epilogue.”

I’ve griped enough about the deluge of Tessa Hadley work that’s flowed through TNY over the past couple of years, so I’ll just acknowledge my attitude and move on to the story, available online.

Told in three parts, it’s comprised of a shifting set of relationships that come together at the end. First we have a young girl who dreams a terrible epilogue to her favorite book. If dreams are subconscious images (and I don’t believe they can be anything else, really), it’s very interesting that she sees the dullest of the characters, the one she’s paid the least attention to in her reading of the book, as the only one who survives. She’s horrified at the phrasing of that survival, however: “Still, the idea of her ‘ripe old age’ was full of horror: wasn’t she just a girl, with everything ahead of her?” It’s a kind of coming-of-age for the child, as she realizes that time passes, that we get old, and we eventually die. She re-enacts the chaos she feels by turning over specific furniture in a particular room.

In the second section, we meet the child’s mother. She, too, awakens in the night, but she awakens not from but to a bad dream: she sees the furniture in her husband’s study, and assumes he has committed this violence:

From now on, she would hold on to this new insight into him, no matter how reasonable he seemed. Her disdain hurt her, like a bruise to the chest; she was more used to admiring him. But it was also exhilarating: she seemed to see the future with great clarity, looking forward through a long tunnel of antagonism, in which her husband was her enemy.

So she, too, has a coming of age, an awakening to the future. What makes this all very interesting is that both the child, and the mother, determine to keep their furniture encounters a secret.

At first, I saw this as a play on a conceit long popular in comedy, but one that I find annoying: the secret kept for no good reason other than it drives the story. Alan Brady wants Rob to patch up a script by a famous author, but won’t tell the famous author so he doesn’t get cut from the play; thus Rob has to hide in a closet and pretend to be a tailor to keep the secret. And of course, at the end, all is told, and everything works out fine (except a more famous ghostwriter gets the job – this episode was just on the other night, yes, I watch 50 year old TV shows sometimes, it’s better than Real Housewives). The secret creates the story, but it’s senseless.

I think there’s reason for the secrets in this story, though, and I think those reasons illuminate character (see, you thought I was going to blast Hadley, didn’t you? I do my best to give credit where credit is due). The girl is probably afraid of getting into trouble for overturning the chairs, sure, but I think there’s a bit more than that, she’s still new to this very scary idea that she will grow old – that a “ripe old age” awaits her – and that she and her family, some day, will die. To explain it would be to give voice to it; that would make it real.

The secret the mother keeps is far more interesting. In the lead-up to the discovery of the chairs, she’s realizing how wasted her life has been:

She should have been a painter, she thought in a flash of anger, not a housewife and a dressmaker. But at art college she’d been overawed by the fine-arts students, who were mostly experienced grown men, newly returned from doing their national service in India and Malaya. Still, her orderly kitchen reassured her: the scene of her daily activity, poised and quiescent now, awaiting the morning, when she’d pick it up again with renewed energy.

I think she’s just itching to hate her husband, and the overturned chairs give her the reason.

The third section brings the family, mother and daughter both dealing with the leak of their respective subconsciouses in the night, together for breakfast. In the kitchen, as it happens: Mom’s orderly, reassuring kitchen, where she’s making bacon, just like hubby’s mom used to do for him. What’s interesting is the way Mom’s frustration gets passed along to the daughter when she refuses to allow her to read the book from the dream – unaware, of course, of its significance.

This is a story that so naturally projects into the future, I’d assumed it was another excerpt, but from Hadley’s Page-Turner interview, it seems not

Overall, I got a lot of To The Lighthouse from this story, but I suspect that’s just because it’s in three sections, it’s set in between-the-wars England, the husband is a philosopher, and Mom is repressed into frantic domesticity while dreaming of having been a painter. I’m sure there are dozens of stories that meet those conditions. (Ok, so it’s Lily in Lighthouse who’s the painter, not Mrs. Ramsey, but still).

Addendum: I like the way TNY has deviated from their traditional page design for the story art. They’ve done this a few times this year, and it’s been quite interesting to watch the variations emerge.

Tessa Hadley: “Valentine” from TNY, 4/8/13

TNY Art by Beata Boucht

TNY Art by Beata Boucht

It’s June, and summer is thick everywhere, a sleepy, viscous, sensuous emanation; optic blasts of air, opaque with pollen from the overblown suburban gardens, are ripe with smells from bins and dog mess. We are mad with summer, chafing and irritable with sex. We are fifteen…
Something has to happen.
Into our heat that morning comes Valentine.

What is it with Tessa Hadley and TNY? Does she have pictures of Deborah Treisman with goats or something?

I know, that isn’t really fair. After all, this is only the sixth Hadley piece they’ve published in slightly less than two years. They’ve published Alice Munro six times as well in roughly the same period, and George Saunders five times. I wasn’t aware Hadley was in that league, but I’m not big on leagues anyway, so I’m always happy to see someone crash a league.

The offerings of those other two authors, however, were actual short stories, instead of novel excerpts as three of Hadley’s pieces have turned out to be. In her Page-Turner interview Hadley says she didn’t know when she wrote “Honor” whether it would be a story or part of a novel; it wasn’t until later that Stella’s life story would become a novel-in-stories. That may have been the case when she wrote it, but at the time it was published, it was called the first chapter of her planned novel. The novel is due out in the UK next month. Maybe this is the most highly-anticipated blockbuster of the decade, and I’m just too ignorant to realize it. But I’m really, really tired of Stella.

My main issue: I find Stella as a short-story character to be perhaps not as interesting as Stella the novel-in-stories character could grow to be. The movie might be great; the clips aren’t working for me.

In the first installment, “Honor,” I saw a not-that-unusual situation developed with skill and great attention to detail. I called it “very good background” to a story that hadn’t started yet, which, as the first story in a novel-of-stories, is exactly what it turns out to be. “The Clever Girl,” which is the title of the novel-in-stories, introduced a stepfather Nor; in this present story, set shortly thereafter, the stepfather is George, leaving me to wonder: is this a different stepfather, two stepfathers in such a short period of time? Or was it just Hadley’s decision to change the name? It matters.

If I were feeling more generous – and I should be; the writing here is lush and evocative – I’d admit it’s an interesting idea, to follow a writer’s development of a character through a novel-in-stories. The structure of the novel interests me as well: stories set at different ages, demonstrating different phases in Stella’s life. The understanding of her family situation at age eight. Her developing intelligence as a young teen. And now, at fifteen, her blossoming sexuality, her desire for independence.

But my attention is all thrusting forward, onward, out of there. I’ve burned my boats I can’t go back – or, rather, I do go back, dutifully, every evening after school, and do my homework at the same table in the same stale olive-green dining room, and still get the best marks in the class for everything, nearly everything. But it’s provisional, while I wait for my real life to begin. I feel like an overgrown giant in that house…

That’s effective; we’ve all been there. So why am I not more taken with Stella?

I should be (yes, I know, I keep saying that…the crew at The Mookse and the Gripes loved this story, and I always get nervous when I’m on the opposite side of the fence from them). I like the “memoir voice,” that term Marko Fong used that conveys perfectly what first person past does. It’s a tricky thing, too: we need to see the future projected, but not too much of it. Hadley uses it very effectively early in this particular story to let us know that the teenage romance with Valentine will come to an end, but he will show up later in Stella’s life. It’s more than just foreshadowing; it’s a conspiratorial whisper to the reader: “Pay attention to this; you’ll want to recall it later on.” I like writer-reader conspiracies. The problem with an excerpt is, we don’t get to see the payoff.

The prose itself here is wonderful, perfectly conveying the first sexual flush of a fifteen-year-old girl. It’s a distinct change in tone from the earlier stories, and it cooks. I wanted to be fifteen again, but this kind of fifteen, not the fifteen I actually was.

I wanted Val because he was different – as I was different. What I felt at my first sight of him that summer morning was more than ordinary love: something like recognition.

One of my problems with the story is that she tips her hand. I knew the nature of the problem from the moment Valentine appeared, saw it there amidst all the red herrings. Again, if I were feeling more generous, I’d see it as confirmation of a hunch, instead of a failed grand reveal. I don’t insist on surprise; I admitted that everything I expected to happen in The Fault of our Stars actually happened, so what’s the difference? Perhaps it was the humor; or maybe Hazel just fit my personal tastes better. For whatever reason, by the end of this story, I felt a bit cheated. I felt – to assume a 15-year-old persona – “Well, duh!”

As for my mother, cleverness could never beat her. In my mind, I was convinced that her life – housework and childcare – was limited and conventional. But, in my body, I was susceptible to her inpatient brisk delivery, her capable hands fixing and straightening – sometimes straightening me, brusquely, even when I had half grown away from her…

That said, it’s still my favorite of the Stella stories. The teenage urge to break away from the safety of home and parents clashing with the desire for that very safety, sure. And my heart broke for Stella as she subsumed her own tastes and appreciations to conform to Valentine’s opinions, which, as a teenager in love, she saw as vastly superior to her own. I so wanted to slap her out of it, to tell her, “You’re the winner in this relationship; it’s he who should be imitating you.” But this learning process, how to be ourselves in the company of another, is by necessity a solo act, and Stella has to go through it on her own. In fact, I was so engaged in this aspect of the story, the consequences of this first romance seemed almost an afterthought.

But I’m sure we’ll see another story about that soon. Thanks to the goats.

Tessa Hadley: “Experience” from The New Yorker, 1/21/13

*jOuey- "attic room"

*jOuey- “attic room”

There were no curtains on the windows of that house, not even in the bedrooms. At first, I found this unbearable. I undressed for bed in the bathroom; I got into bed in the dark. But after a while I began to get used to it. This was how Hana lived her life—flamboyantly on display, careless of who might be watching. I didn’t flatter myself that anyone was watching me.

This is the fifth Hadley story I’ve read in TNY, and by far and away my favorite; in fact, it’s the only one I’ve been enthusiastic about. Either I’m catching on, or she is. It’s available online.

The story on just a plot level is enjoyable and carried me along. Laura’s marriage has just broken up, she’s low on funds, so she finds a house-sitting gig at the London townhouse of friend-of-a-friend Hana who’s going to be travelling to America for a bit. During her stay, she discovers an old-fashioned skeleton key and a locked room in the attic; what could be more enticing? Amongst the odd assortment of items – camping equipment, mattresses still wrapped in plastic, a wetsuit, a chandelier – is Hana’s diary, telling the tale of a tumultuous romance with married man Julian that left her with a broken heart. Laura compares this to the end of her marriage, which is more of an inconvenience:

I’ve never lived, I thought, as I knelt there, reading with my legs cramped underneath me, aware of the rain as if it were drumming on my skin. I’ve never lived: the words ran in my head. Life was garish and ruthless and exaggerated, and I’d never really had it—I was like one of those child brides in history whose marriage was annulled by the Pope because it wasn’t consummated.

He and I had too much irony to take our lives as earnestly as Hana took hers. Viewed coldly from outside, how silly Hana’s affair was and how demeaning, with its hysteria and its banal props. But who wanted to view things coldly, from outside?

Julian, the Julian, calls, looking for Hana. Or, more accurately, looking for the camping equipment he stored in her attic; he wants to take his son camping. The scene that follows isn’t written in a particularly humorous style, but it reminded me of one of those old Alec Guinness comedies from the 50s, as Laura can’t reveal she’s seen the camping equipment or even the key to the locked room but must lead Julian to it nonetheless, with Hana on the phone making helpful suggestions.

Hadley arranges the events very nicely here, to get Julian back in the house again. Here’s where I felt the story rose above the already-good plot. All along, there’s been this tension between Hana’s flamboyance and display, and Laura’s more restrained, private, hidden nature:

The little collection of totems that I took with me everywhere—pebbles from a certain beach, a few framed photographs, my dead mother’s empty perfume bottle—looked like rubbish when I spread them out in Hana’s bedroom, so I hid them away again.

Laura dresses in Hana’s blouse and necklace for Julian’s second visit: “Disguised, I was able to perform a part…” I especially enjoyed a comment Cliff Garstang made about this on his blog Perpetual Folly: “I don’t have nearly as clear a picture of Laura, except when she’s dressed in Hana’s clothes.” This fits with how Laura sees herself – hiding – and now, in essence, she becomes the woman whose flamboyance and “experience” she so admires. It’s as if by living in Hana’s house, she absorbs some of her more demonstrative bearing. But I think her metamorphosis began when she discovering the secrets in the attic. A secret empowers her to gain the grand experience she craves. And of course, for all her flamboyance, it’s Hana who has a locked room and something hidden in her diary.

There’s something about the way these two themes, experience/not and hiddenness/display, work together. Perhaps the more open you are, the greater the chance you have a secret, somewhere, that no one would ever guess, whereas perhaps the more private people are likely to be more what meets the eye. But perhaps that’s only because, the more open you are, the more likely you’ve had an “experience” worth keeping secret. I’m glad Laura has experienced being on display, and that she now has an experience worth keeping to herself. At the same time, I’m a little sad that she had to turn into Hana to have that experience; but maybe now she’s ready to “live” as herself. Any time I get this involved with a character – happy and sorry – it’s a good thing, and I’m glad this finally happened for a character in a Tessa Hadley story.

Tessa Hadley: “An Abduction” from The New Yorker, 7/9/12

New Yorker art by Emily Shur

New Yorker art by Emily Shur

Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.

It’s great opening, echoing the title, but it’s also misleading – there is no abduction. No actual abduction, anyway; there may perhaps be a more metaphoric one. The “nobody noticed” is the important part. It’s available online– third story in a row, thank you, TNY.

This story feels like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” with Arnold Friend recast as a clean-cut college boy on break (which is a little like saying it’s like Moby-Dick with a guppy instead of a whale). If you watch a lot of Law & Order, you’ll know it’s the clean-cut college boys who are the slimiest – but still, it’s short on fiendishness. There is an air of threat hanging over most of it, but the threat never materializes. And that made me, as the reader, feel cheated. I don’t mind a little bit of trickery, but this was too blatant. There is a story here – but it’s not malice, threat, or abduction.

The author interview concerns me: Hadley determinedly interprets the story. I’m all for giving some insight into where something came from, or the primary theme one had in mind, but this feels like the author, having released the story to the reader, wresting control back, demanding it be read in the one “correct” way, as she intended it. There’s also the issue of, why does she feel such a need to explain the story in such detail? Shouldn’t all that be in the story itself? It makes me a little nervous.

“An Abduction” takes place in the 60s in Surrey, England, amidst the gentry. There’s a lot of terrific description of family dynamics:

It wasn’t acceptable in Jane’s kind of family to complain about good weather, yet the strain of it told on them, parents and children: they were remorselessly cheerful, while secretly they longed for rain. Jane imagined herself curled up with a bag of licorice beside a streaming windowpane, reading about the Chalet School. But her mother said it was a crime to stay indoors while the sun shone, and Jane couldn’t read outside with the same absorption; there was always some strikingly perfect speckled insect falling onto your page like a reminder (of what? of itself), or a root nudging into your back, or stinging ants inside your shorts.

I love that impatience with being shooed outside. It’s not quite like eating your broccoli because there are starving children in Europe (or Asia or Africa, depending on when you were of broccoli-hating age), but it’s similar; somehow it’s a waste of good weather if you aren’t out “enjoying” it. I appreciate nice weather when I have to go somewhere or have outdoor plans; I love not being rained on and not freezing/roasting my butt off. But other than that, going outside to “enjoy the weather” never made sense to me: how does one “enjoy weather,” exactly?

Jane’s a little behind her friends at school, a little socially younger than they are:

She should be like them, she reproached herself; or she should be more thoroughly embarked on her teen-age self, like some of the girls at school, painting on makeup, then scrubbing it off, nurturing crushes on friends’ brothers she’d only ever seen from a distance, cutting out pictures of pop stars from Jackie magazine. Jane knew that these girls were ahead of her in the fated trek toward adulthood, which she had half learned about in certain coy biology lessons. Yet theirs seemed also a backward step into triviality, away from the thing that this cerulean day—munificent, broiling, burning across her freckled shoulders, hanging so heavily on her hands—ought to become, if only she knew better how to use it.

In the yard, she’s playing with a paddle toy, rather than sunbathing or painting her toenails or whatever it is a teenager does. Again, I recognize a lot of myself in this girl, but I don’t really feel any empathy, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the British prose (which is lovely, by the way, if a little on the lush side- I’m including numerous quotes to do it justice). Or maybe it’s deliberate, and the author is keeping the reader at a distance here.

But I think I’m just on a different wavelength completely. In fact, at one point (when she disrupts her little sister’s tea party) I wondered if Jane was mentally ill, prone to hallucinations and delusions:

When Jane came near, the little girls melted into the undergrowth with hostile backward looks. She kicked their dolls over and hurled the pinecones as far as she could toward the flaunting patches of sky between the treetops (she had a strong throw, her father always said, better than Robin’s); but she lacked conviction even in her malevolence. “We hate her! She’s so ugly,” the witch-children hummed, drifting between the bald pine trunks, keeping out of sight. Jane remembered, as she often did, how once at a friend’s house she had overheard the dotty grandmother asking too loudly who the “plain” one was.

But no, I think it’s just that she’s an outsider in her own life, and she resents it.

While Jane is outside enjoying this particular beautiful day, a car of three college boys on leave from Oxford drive by, and she accepts a ride from them; she calls her mom to say she’ll be doing a sleepover with a school friend. The boys talk her into shoplifting some booze, and bring her to one of their homes where she goes swimming. There’s some great imagery here – Daniel, the most appealing of the three boys, uses a vulgarity that, to sheltered Jane, becomes “an entrance, glowering with darkness, into the cave of things unknown to her.” Fiona, sister to one of the boys and Daniel’s former liaison, shows up, taking the spotlight away from Jane, who swims alone in the filthy pool:

…all the accumulated rubbish (leathery wet leaves, sodden drowned butterflies and daddy longlegs, an empty cigarette pack) bobbing against her breasts and lips and knees as she swam. No one joined her in the pool. Jane had hardly expected them to; she had accepted immediately the justice of her defeat—right at the moment that she’d had all the boys’ eyes on her—by the older, prettier, more sophisticated girl. (Still, the word “woebegone” nudged at her, from a poem she’d read at school.)

That’s a pretty amazing paragraph: she’s so used to being passed over, she just accepts swimming in trash.

A short time later, she and Daniel head off to a bedroom, where nature takes its course. Today this would probably be statutory rape. It’s hard to remember a time before “sexual assault” was a common phrase. Jane was a willing participant at all times – in fact, she was looking forward to another round. Did he take advantage of her? Sure. Does that make him despicable? Absolutely. A criminal? I’m not sure – and I’m uncomfortable with not being sure; it’d be easier to just file it in a box marked “crime” and move on, but I can’t. There’s some indication, when the boys first pick her up, that she appears older than she is (“She wasn’t plain in that moment, though she didn’t know it…. She seemed not fake or stuck up—and, just then in the dappled light, not a child, either. None of this was wasted on the boys”). It may not be politically correct to let him off this easily, but remember, this took place in the 60s, before “stranger danger” “sexual assault” and “pedophile” were part of the vernacular.

She later discovers him sleeping in Fiona’s bed; without waking him, she asks the other boys to take her into town where she can call her mother for a ride. “So now you know,” one of them says; I’m not sure if he means “you know about sex” or “you know who Daniel is.” She never speaks of this day to anyone.

The significance of the story, for me, lies in the closing paragraphs, when a fast-forward shows both Jane and Daniel, in their early 50s. Jane has lived a rather distant life (which may be why such distance is created in the reading), marrying and divorcing, then seeing a therapist to find out why she feels that she’s separated from “real life on the other side.” She explains what “real life” would be:

Haltingly, Jane described a summer day beside a swimming pool. A long sunlit room with white walls and a white bed. A breeze is blowing; long white curtains are dragged sluggishly backward and forward on a pale wood floor. (These women’s fantasies, the counsellor thought, have more to do with interior décor than with repressed desires.) Then Jane got into her stride, and the narrative became more interesting. “A boy and a girl,” she said, “are naked, asleep in the bed. I am curled on a rug on the floor beside them. The boy turns over in his sleep, flings out his arm, and his hand dangles to the floor. I think he’s seeking out the cool, down there under the bed. I move carefully on my rug, so as not to wake him. I move so that his hand is touching me.”
That’s more like it, the counsellor thought. That’s something.

This is not a precise replay of that day; it’s interesting she’s rewritten the part where she found Daniel with Fiona, in a way that’s terribly sad – stealing a touch from him, rather than having him stay with her that night, or at least show some kindness to her in some way.

Daniel, on the other hand, in a little sleight of omniscient POV, doesn’t remember the incident, which too is terribly sad:

It isn’t only that the drink and the drugs made him forget. He’s had too much happiness in his life since, too much experience; he’s lost that fine-tuning that could hold on to the smell of the ham in the off-license, the wetness of the swimming costume, the girl’s cold skin and her naïveté, her extraordinary offer of herself without reserve, the curtains sweeping the floor in the morning light. It’s all just gone.

The universe works in interesting ways. Just before I read this story, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a few months; she introduced me to Faith, whom she was with, and I said I remembered meeting her before, at a couple of parties. She was perplexed. I went on about how I’d met her at a birthday party for Hope (another mutual friend) , notable because of the names (needing only a Charity to complete the set), and described the afternoon pot-luck shortly before Christmas, after following a holiday barbershop quartet concert. Neither of them remembered either event, though both were there. These are busy people, very social, flitting around, “doing” things. I wonder about that. What’s the use of doing all these things, if you don’t remember them afterwards? It made an interesting backdrop to this story.

What does it mean that Daniel doesn’t remember Jane, since she has no way of knowing that? How is it that she has, in some way, been “abducted” from that one day of “real life” into a more stilted existence? These are the questions that interest me.

I should admit that I wasn’t looking forward to this story (for the record, I liked it better than I expected I would). It’s her fourth story to appear in TNY, and I remain perplexed as to why that is so. It’s the third about a little girl in the 60s, though a different little girl than in her first two stories.

Honor” and “Clever Girl” both featured Stella; about “Honor” I said:

This story is from the POV of a woman looking back at her childhood in early-1960′s England. It’s a great portrait of an ethos, of a time when women bore shame and men did not, when children were seen and not heard, when secrets were treasured and truth wasn’t very important – but concealing the truth was.

Sound familiar? It’s the same character, with a different name. “Clever Girl” continues Stella’s story; they’re two of a series of six stories following Stella.

I liked “The Stain” better, and again, it concerned a character who is “a bit of a misfit in her village” – and, much to my surprise (I don’t really remember the story), I said: “The ‘abduction’ she undergoes at the end of the story feels similarly false.” These themes and characters – girls in the 60s, lost and awkward, dealing with secrets, who understand it is women who bear the shame for the behavior of men – are powerful, but more than anything else, they make me wonder what Tessa Hadley talks about in therapy.

About “Honor” I also said: “I’m going to have to accept that I don’t care for this particular author. I’m sure it’s my loss.” I still stand by that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some of the elements.

Tessa Hadley: “The Stain” from The New Yorker 11/7/11

New Yorker art by Annette Marnat

When she was a child, this house from the outside, with its tall façade and many blind-looking windows, had seemed to stand for all the grandeur and beauty she could imagine. In reality, inside it was dingy and half-furnished and needed a coat of paint.

This story has some elements I really enjoyed, but overall I found it rather uninteresting and somewhat contrived. I’m having trouble even formulating anything to say about it without being snide. When I photocopied the story in the library, I omitted the title page so I didn’t realize it was by Tessa Hadley until after I’d read it, at which point I wondered, seeing as she’s had three stories in The New Yorker this year, if she’s got pictures of Deborah Treisman with goats or something. If they’re going to print three stories by someone, I’d think it would be someone else. See what I mean by snide? Maybe it’s just that I’ve been awash in soul-burning tear-stained gut-busting worldview-changing stories lately, and I don’t have patience with the merely adequate.

The story, which I actually liked better than the two earlier stories (“Clever Girl” and “Honor“), is about Marina, a bit of a misfit in her village, who goes to work for an aged man of means. He’s retired to the village from South Africa, and won’t talk about it. I’m not sure if Marina doesn’t make the connection, or doesn’t want to, but her surprise at the end is not believable to me. The “abduction” she undergoes at the end of the story feels similarly false. And the old man’s death is timed with the precision of a Harlequin romance.

I can appreciate a lot of the themes Hadley mentions in her Book Bench interview: how a community might “collaborate, for better and for worse, to establish a consensus, and to sustain it through disapproval and gossip;” and especially, “how that secret stain would contaminate what was around him.” I found more of both in the old man’s family than in the actual village. Marina played the role of the outsider upsetting the status quo of the family.

I’m going to have to accept that I don’t care for this particular author. I’m sure it’s my loss.

Tessa Hadley: “Clever Girl” from The New Yorker, June 6, 2011

Vee Speers, "Untitled #12" from Birthday Party (2007)

If I knew him now as he was then, what would I think of him? I can imagine watching him.…His judgment – not of abstractions like immigration and taxes but knowing how to hold himself, when to be still – is unexpectedly delicate and true.; I can see it now, from this distance.

This story is the third in a series of six stories (as of now; see the author interview) about Stella, a British child growing up in the 1960s. The first, “Honor“, in which Stella was about eight years old, was published in The New Yorker last January.

Stella is now about fifteen but narrates from a distance of time and upon considerable reflection. The story is very effective at conveying her emotional reality as she adjusts to a series of major changes in her life. I do have an issue with elements being artlessly dropped from the story after they’ve served some temporary purpose. Also, the events in the story don’t really lead to one another, they’re just chronologically linked and have been chosen because they illustrate the given theme. And I have the same problem I had with her earlier story, “Honor”, in that due to the “looking back” voice, it just doesn’t seem like a complete story but a scene in a longer work (which, in a sense, it is, though it’s written as a complete story, albeit one in a series). I felt Stella the narrator was incomplete, because I didn’t know what had happened to her in the intervening years that might have altered her perception of these events. Did she find happiness as an adult? Or was she scarred by these events? But there’s an emotional core here, and it feels very true.

Stella’s mother has just married Nor. We don’t know what happened to her father, but he’s been gone since she was a baby and she doesn’t remember him. The new family moves into a brand-new house complete with stickers still on the windows and fresh-cut tree stumps marking rectangles that will be gardens. As it happens, I moved into a similar brand-new house, albeit in Florida, when I was about ten, so I understand the starkness of a new development. It’s clean and new but it’s also empty and barren. And a new family might feel the same way. This was very effective.

Stella has a doll, presumably a Barbie-type doll, at the beginning of the story. There’s a truly wonderful paragraph about the doll:

My belief in my dolls, at that point, was in a delicate balance. I knew that they were inert plastic and could be tumbled without consequences upside down and half naked in the toy box. At the same time, I seemed to feel the complex sensibility of each one, like an extra skin stretched taut and responsive, both in my mind and quite outside of me.

The doll disappears completely from the story. Stella meets Madeleine, her new neighbor, and they become friends of convenience. They begin a cult of the beech trees which were cut down so the development could be built. Madeleine, as Stella sees her, is an interesting character: “Her oblivion seemed so extreme that it had to be disingenuous…. You never got to the bottom of what she actually knew or didn’t know.” Madeleine fades from the story as well, though not as suddenly or as completely as the doll.

The doll, and Madeleine, reinforce the real trope of the piece: duality. Things that are one way and another at the same time. Things that might be or might not be at the same time. A new house much bigger than the old apartment but that seems crowded because stepfather Nor is there. A stepfather who is not a father but is trying his best to be. A stepfather who, in spite of his occasional impatience is about as good and decent and caring as any father could be, is still regarded with suspicion. A mother who, in becoming pregnant, displays an interest in babies that Stella never knew existed. And trees which are there even though they have been cut down.

The final incident – indeed, the only real incident of the rather thin plot – is quite wonderful in a quiet way. Mum is in the hospital for the last weeks of her pregnancy. Stella is trying to figure out a math problem, and Nor tries to help. She realizes he just might be able to help, since he is an account keeper and works with numbers all day. Of course, accounting and physics are very different things, and the problem eludes him. He insists the teacher must have explained how to solve the problem. Then somehow Stella’s coffee gets spilled. “Spilled milk was one of the things Nor and Mum dreaded above all else; if you failed to eradicate every trace, the smell as it soured came back to haunt you.” And Stella, as she’s saving her homework book from the mess, has a brainstorm and comprehends the previously incomprehensible equations involving distance, velocity, and acceleration. It doesn’t sound like much, but it works in the story. Stella explains it to us: “….he hated his failure to know more than I did, be cleverer than I was.” And she begins to understand the duality that has been underlying the entire piece.

Tessa Hadley: “Honor” from The New Yorker, 2/7/2011

This story is from the POV of a woman looking back at her childhood in early-1960’s England. It’s a great portrait of an ethos, of a time when women bore shame and men did not, when children were seen and not heard, when secrets were treasured and truth wasn’t very important – but concealing the truth was.

Stella, the narrator, was at the time of the story an 8-year-old girl who lives with her mom (She is in present time now, in her 50’s). She’s just learned recently that her father is not dead, that he abandoned the family when she was a baby. This was lied about by Mum (Edna) because of course it is shameful to have a man leave you but not shameful to be a widow. I love some of the observations in this piece: “…. so many things that seem quaint now were current and powerful then: shame and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you away from the inside.”

Grandmother Nana is “continually in the process of clearing out, giving things away, as if she were trying to weigh less and less, as if life itself were a mess that she was gradually getting to the bottom of.” Stella “can remember being flooded with happiness once, alone in Nana’s bedroom” just by feeling alive in the breeze looking at colors and textures. The fact that it was only once tells me she is not a happy child, and the fact that this does not consume her tells me that she did not expect to be a happy child. Today, she’d be bundled off to a child therapist for treatment. I probably would have been to – I was so shy in kindergarten, I walked on tiptoe and whispered when I said anything at all. It never occurred to me I could be happy. Stella and I are about the same age, and we see some things the same (my family was well-off, though the family itself was pretty much a wreck, something I didn’t realize until I was much older as secrets were our strength, too).

Mum does not want to move back with Nana: “I thought of Nana as harmless, lightweight, easy to brush aside…But I knew from my mother’s face that for her the idea of moving back into her old home was a living danger… The only way for her to defend herself against Nana’s bleaching, purging worldview was to defy it: to wear scent and lipstick every day….”. And here Nana pretty much fades from view. It’s too bad, she was an interesting character. I suppose she was just to lend background to Mum, but it felt like she was abandoned by the storyteller.

Auntie Andy (aunt on disappeared father’s side) comes to stay with Mum and Stella. This is stretched out a while, Stella in the dark about the reason, but after a day or two (and a page or so) we all find out: Uncle Derek, whose name Stella never knew because she never met him, killed their son Charlie. Stella never liked Charlie, he had “sly and hostile energy, full of contempt for girls and women.” Which he probably learned from Uncle Derek who beat Auntie Andy regularly, and at the trial Stella notes that Derek’s mother says something to give her the impression that his father beat his mother as well. So we have three generations of abusers, though Charlie never got his chance at bat, so to speak. It’s a little advanced for an n 8-year-old to come up with this, but she is speaking from the vantage point of decades later.

The comparison between Mum and Andy as Stella sees it is probably the most interesting part of the story (and considering the murder and trial, that’s saying something). It’s certainly the focus. “What was odd about Auntie Andy, I realized, was that her shyness had been blasted out of her by whatever had happened, the way an explosion can leave people deaf… Her shyness never did come back… was transformed into something different: reserve, or dignity.”

I also found Stella’s reaction to Charlie’s death interesting. “I resented Charlie with a pure rage…. He seemed a usurper in a realm that gave him a huge advantage of pity and terror: he surely didn’t belong there, with his ugly stamping feet.” I had a similar reaction when I learned my ex-husband had died. How unfair! Now I was not allowed ever again to say anything mean about him!

Someone, I don’t remember who or where, said recently of another story that it seemed a story of ideas rather than about the characters. That’s what I think I get here. There are some great ideas here, about how women are treated, how they accept that treatment, and how (maybe) some things have changed a bit. The characters are well-drawn with great anecdotes and Stella’s observations are wonderful. But… it doesn’t feel like a great read to me. It feels like a sociology essay. I don’t have a picture of Stella. Or of Mum or Andy or Nana. And it’s very much a women-against-men world; I can’t imagine a man reading this and not feeling ashamed. Oh, wait! No, feeling shame over someone else’s behavior is what women do.

Tessa Hadley gives an interview in The New Yorker in which she says this is the first chapter of a novel-in-stories about Stella, which may account for the flatness of my experience. Excerpts tend to be background for the more interesting twists of future events in a novel. And I think that’s it, this is great background, and I’m still waiting for the story to start.

[Zin Kenter] Hello, I am Zin! I have something to say about this story! It is less satisfying because it is a victim story – you wrote about this, in the story “The Whore’s Child” by Richard Russo, a student reviewer of the story the nun wrote commented:

“It’s a victim story,” one student recognized. “The character is being acted on by outside forces, but she has no choices, which means there can be no consequences to anything she does. If she doesn’t participate in her own destiny, where’s the story?”

Stella does not participate in her destiny. She can not, she is a child. It is not her destiny at stake! So she is not the central character! But she is the narrator and it feels like her story and it is confusing! Whose destiny is at stake? Auntie Andy of course, what do you do when your husband kills your child, you can lay down and die or you can have Honor and Dignity and find a new husband and get some kind of life back, since life was interrupted but it was not your fault! And that is what Auntie Andy does, except we see her through the eyes of a child remeniscing decades later so it is at a distance. But the story belongs to Andy, I think, and a little bit to Mum who participates in her destiny by letting Andy stay with them, giving Stella the view of two people, three if you count Nana. And she has these three role models of how to live. The problem is – and here is the problem – Stella does not show how these three role models affect her! We do not know! Because it is a novel in stories and we have not read that story yet! This is why novel excerpts do not work as short stories, I am afraid!

But of course that is just what I think. I hope other people will tell me what they think – hello? Is anyone out there?