Release Date: January 5, 2016
As I read Tessa Hadley’s newest novel, The Past, I had the same feeling as when I eat brussel sprouts. To be honest, I don’t particularly care for brussel sprouts; they are somewhat of an acquired taste for my rather pedestrian palate. But I readily admit, when they are prepared well, brussel sprouts can be exquisite. And this book, although not my normal fare, is indeed exquisite.
It is a fairly simple tale, realistic in its subject matter, gorgeous in its language – almost too much so. It tells the story of an English family coming to terms with change.
In the Somerset countryside is a house – named Kington – full of memories, now falling into disrepair. Four siblings, grown into middle age, return for one last summer holiday together, and to come to a decision on how to handle the property going forward. Alice is the youngest, a never-has-been actress who has also never settled down for the long run; she brings with her the son of her latest partner, so the young man can experience a bit of life away from London. Fran, the middle daughter, has come with her own children – a girl and a boy – but not her assumed laissez-faire husband. Harriet, the oldest, and de facto mother since the death of their own mother when they were teens, comes alone, as she always does. And Roland, the intellectual brother, brings his glamorous, exotic new wife; his sweet natured teen-aged daughter dutifully follows along.
The book begins with the siblings arriving and reconnecting with each other and their past. The reminiscences are thick and pervasive, from the feelings evoked from the property itself, to the beloved yet somewhat remote grandparents, the mother who loomed larger than life, the absentee father; neighbors, landscapes, events, simple days, simple play, childhood hurts and triumphs. Each sibling carries their own personal secrets and memories; each of their charges explore anew, bringing their own sensitivities to the mix, their own sensibilities to the landscape that is somehow so familiar.
Then we shift to the past, to another “summer holiday” when their mother Jill was alive; who, with young children in tow, returns to this, her own childhood home and the parents who loved and were a bit bewildered by her. We now see through Jill’s eyes; she has fled with the children to Kington in the wake of a marital rupture, and although there are no hysterics, no tears or recriminations, the fate of the entire family lies on the edge of change – something that the siblings, as young as they were, will never suspect. Not even when the action of the novel returns to the present again.
The story unfolds slowly, realistically, more full of gorgeous language than cataclysmic revelations. There is a fondness between the siblings, but irritations as well – as with all brothers and sisters. They each harbor secrets, as did their mother and even their grandparents before them, but they are the same kind of secrets we all hold close to our chests; mundane secrets, sensational only to those who cling to them.
Don’t come to The Past expecting murder or mayhem, debauchery, debilitating ennui, or any other of the go-to sensationalisms that seem to litter the pages of literary fiction. But do not confuse a lack of aggrandizement with a lack of drama; the drama is there; it is, though, extremely insular and intimate, and thus something with which the reader can imperturbably empathize. Add to that a narrative full of language that is sumptuous, evocative, sometimes almost too rich for the tale itself, and you have a book that may not be for all palates, but is done so very well, that the experience of it indeed becomes exquisite.
~ Sharon Browning