Four adult siblings, plus children, on holiday in their family’s rectory-turned-vacation home are at the center of British writer Tessa Hadley’s latest, The Past. In close quarters, the siblings and their children trip over one another. At one point, Harriet, the eldest sibling, catches sight of her brother having sex. This is not the only misstep of the motley crew, but certainly indicative of the ways in which their proximity to each other prompts drama. In imagining one of the most embarrassing, awkward scenarios for siblings, Hadley launches into a beautifully executed, wholly original story of a dysfunctional family deciding the fate of the property they may or may not sell.
Hadley is a beloved novelist and short story writer whose previous novel, Clever Girl, documented 50 years of protagonist Stella’s life. Hadley’s goal with The Past was to narrow her focus; “in reaction [to Clever Girl], I wanted to do something very tiny,” she says. While the aim may have been small, a large portrait emerges. In England, and in the wider literary community, Hadley is celebrated as a true master (Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel sing her praises). The Past’s intimate depiction of a family, its commercial appeal and accessibility, will likely break her into the household-name realm in America, which she has already attained across the Atlantic.
In the siblings, Hadley deftly explores relationships. “You have adults that are so profoundly known to each other, as only siblings know each other,” she says. “Siblings are very interesting to do because—unless you’re writing a specific type of book—you’re taking away the sexual motive.” True. Except when unrequited love of, say, a sibling’s spouse enters the picture. (Psst: it does.) And the passion that blooms for one sister is a small, special thing (to all but said sibling).
The thrust of the novel happens when the siblings come together in the family house under the guise of a three-week homage to past traditions. In fact, discussions of its sale are eminent, as upkeep is becoming exponentially more of a nuisance. Hadley pens some of her most vivid descriptions of the house and the surrounding English countryside; West Somerset is her muse, though she never explicitly states it in the book.
The depiction of the windowsill, the neighbors, the cemetery, the even-your-cell-carrier-can’t-reach-here remoteness—it’s as if a painter rendered the image precisely, it’s so lovingly developed. The home itself becomes a character in the book as the reader moves through it. It’s no wonder that the setting of all the action is so revealing of the family itself. “If you go into somebody’s house it is a metaphor for their life,” as Hadley puts it. Make that tenfold when the house has been with the family for generations and holds so many memories.
While the adults sit with their monumental decisions about the house and attempt to reconcile the people they are with the people their siblings think they are (isn’t it such a pain to be a grown-up around those who knew you at your childish worst?), the next generation has discovered an abandoned, derelict cottage in the woods. “I wanted the children to have this slightly dangerous place where they were finding out about the dark side of things with that appetite and fear I so remember as a child,” Hadley says of the cottage. “Children sniff out the things grownups don’t want them to know about, and they’re sort of appalled by them. [As a child] you can’t control things as an adult can, but you can’t resist them, either. You sort of need to know.”
In the cottage, the younger children find a neighbor’s dead and decaying golden retriever (and hide this fact), and develop a ritual of penance for their secret that involves old porn magazines they also found (but do not truly understand). The teenagers, meanwhile, caught between youth and adulthood, find a different use for the cottage.
“Houses are readymade for writers,” Hadley says, and proves it in The Past. In her structures, the ghosts of memories move through the rooms and pages, shaping her characters as much as they shape the spaces they inhabit. In The Past, the past is never truly gone, just as the buildings— which house all their celebrations, shames, and secrets—still exist, even if no one is home.
Steph Opitz is the former literary director of the Texas Book Festival. Her reviews have appeared in Marie Claire, Departures, Garden & Gun, and elsewhere.