Tessa Hadley is very well regarded in serious writing circles in Britain. This is not just because she is professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, England, but because she has a string of successful novels and some fine collections of short stories behind her.
The Past won the Hawthornden Prize for 2016 and Bad Dreams won the 2018 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Her admirers include luminaries such as Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith and the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Yet she is not that well known outside literary circles and is certainly nowhere near being a household name. Late In The Day, for me, helps explain why.
Fiction is a very broad church and Hadley occupies a smallish and particular pew in it. Not for her the flashiness of language or the desire to shock that has seen lesser talents grab the headlines. Hadley’s interests are firmly, quietly, middle-class, small scale, and exploratory.
What happens when siblings clash, when love runs out, when friendships falter? Or, as in this case, when a quartet of close friends is dislocated by the sudden death of one of them.
Alex, Christine, Lydia and Zachary have been friends since their student days. They have travelled together, laughed together, loved together and reached late middle age secure in their friendship. Alex is a poet turned primary school head teacher, married to Christine, a moderately successful artist. Zachary has money and runs an art gallery and is married to Lydia who does not do much other than practise being Lydia with all the glamour that entails.
Their relationships have not always been thus. During the student days, Lydia pursued Alex, babysitting for him and his then wife while secretly trying to lure Alex away. And Christine dated Zachary.
But as events turned out, it was Alex, brooding, intense, of eastern European origin, who chose arty Christine and Lydia who snagged Zachary and the life of affluence he afforded. So this is a quartet with some muddled history.
When the novel opens, Christina and Alex are listening to music one summer evening after supper. The phone rings. It is Lydia. “I’m at the hospital…. Something’s happened…. It’s Zachary. He was taken ill at the gallery.”
There is a brief discussion. Lydia explains that he keeled over at work. They think it’s his heart. “Are they going to operate?” Christine asks. Lydia answers, “Why aren’t you listening, Christine? I told you, he’s dead.”
This exchange is important because it flags up much of what is to follow. Lydia has not actually told Christine that Zach is dead, although she thinks she has. “Why aren’t you listening?” applies beyond the immediate phone call and frequently to what is not actually articulated.
Christine struggles to comprehend the news and is reluctant to tell Alex for fear of “ruining his happiness”.
The blow is great because Zachary, of all of them, is the confident one, the optimist, the one who “papers over the cracks”.
When Lydia moves in with Alex and Christine she confesses one night that Zach’s death is “a terrible pain. But it’s not love. I have to tell the truth to you, to no-one else. Otherwise I can’t bear it. You know it isn’t love, don’t you?”
I have quoted this episode from very early on in the book to give a flavour of Hadley’s style and concerns. The events that follow Zach’s demise twist and turn, the group’s stability unsettled by the shocking absence of a glue that held it, and their children, together. The unexpected death proves to be a catalyst for re-alignments, reflections and re-evaluations.
And these changes are charted in detailed and intense ways, picked over with insight and considerable psychological acuity. Hadley is interested in the minutiae of her characters’ lives and relationships that may or may not lead to far weightier changes.
She is so very good at this that the effect can be almost unnerving, pulling into daylight the secret darknesses that lie hidden in her characters and, by implication, in us all.
As a novelist Hadley has many of the traditional strengths. Her characters are well-rounded, distinct and credible; they are explored in depth and with subtlety.
She writes elegantly, with precision and perception. The main narrative is clear and diversions into the past add to our knowledge and understanding of how the quartet arrived at its opening position and prepare us for its future directions.
If there is a downside to this, it is a mild feeling of claustrophobia, that these middle-class metro land dwellers are self-obsessed and too inward looking for their own good, comparatively unaware of the bigger world around them and its problems and issues.
This is a novel, then, whose subject matter and handling imposes limitations – but within those limitations it is, I think, extraordinarily good.
Late In The Day
Author: Tessa Hadley
Publisher: Jonathan Cape