Written by: Tessa Hadley
Number of pages: 325 pages
Publisher: Harper (January 5, 2016
Reviewed by: Ellen Birkett Morris
Tessa Hadley’s novel The Past, uses the English countryside, with its wide open fields, dark forests and dilapidated houses, as a backdrop for a story that explores desire and fulfillment across two generations of a family.
The novel takes place in the family home in Somerset. The first and third sections of the book are set in present day and titled The Present. Four siblings, Alice, Harriet, Roland and Fran, with Fran’s children Arthur and Ivy, Roland’s daughter Molly and his wife Pilar, and Alice’s ex-boyfriend’s son Kasim, gather for three weeks to decide the fate of their grandparent’s house. In the middle section, titled The Past and set in 1968, the siblings’ mother Jill and three of the children come to her parent’s house when Jill leaves the children’s father.
The stories echo across time as they explore questions of desire and fulfillment, connection and separateness. This mood of the novel is set early on as Alice stands in the house and experiences this:
. . . light moving on pink wallpaper, the dark bulk of the wardrobe in the corner
of her vision, the children’s voices from outside, the room’s musty air and its secrets, a
creak of the floorboards—these aroused a memory so piercing and yet so indefinite
that it might only have been a memory of a dream. There was summer in the dream,
and a man, and some wordless, weightless signal of affinity passing between him and
her, with everything to play for.
The novel echoes this dream in scenes between the Molly and Kasim, as they strike up a youthful romance, Harriet and Pilar, as Harriet experiences a surprising attraction, and Jill and an old school mate Mikey, as Jill struggles to figure out what do about her marriage.
The natural world is both itself and a rich metaphor for desire and the cost of giving in to your impulses. As Harriet writes in her diary:
In the field above Bardon Huish I found what I’d never seen before: a waterfall
hidden in a cleft in the ground, grown thickly over with brambles. The berries
still very green and hard. The little fall of water jetting off its miniature cliff
curved purely and perfectly as glass, yet not still but in perpetual motion, I
interrupted it with my hand, feeling its force, indifferent to me. Touched myself
with the water, although of course I knew it might be poisonous.
The writing stops short of magical realism as characters feel called to walk the countryside, are enchanted by the ramshackle remains of a cabin (home to several pivotal scenes), and seek to lose themselves in the wilderness.
The book is satisfying, as it confirms that suspicion we all have that we carry the sins of our parents and grandparents that we are in some ways replaying the roles they played as we move forward into the future shadowed by the past.
Ellen Birkett Morris’s author interviews and book reviews have appeared in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Courier-Journal, Best New Fiction and Authorlink.