At some point a friend out there in the great blogging universe must have recommended Tessa Hadley’s previous novel, The Past, to me. Either that, or it was one of those novels that kept turning up on end of year lists as a book that you really must read. Anyway, I did as I was told and read it and although it didn’t set my reading world alight, I do remember being very impressed with the quality of the writing. Now, everywhere I turn, reviewers are speaking of her new novel, Late in the Day, as one of the great books of 2019 and having read it I have to say I am not inclined to disagree.
Coming to this latest work, I suspect that the reason I didn’t immediately engage with The Past is because Hadley’s work is very much character driven rather than being propelled forward by the plot and I am very much a plot driven reader. Perhaps I engaged so much more thoroughly with this novel because the four main characters are all involved in the world of the arts and/or in teaching and so it was easier for me to appreciate their environment, even if I couldn’t always identify with their motivations and consequent behaviour.
Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary are two couples with a complex intertwining back history. The two women have known each other since schooldays, as have the men, and, as becomes apparent fairly early on in the novel, initially the pairing was the other way round with Lydia pursuing Alex, who had just published a volume of poetry, obsessively. Now grown into middle age and each with a daughter in her early twenties, they are established in their ways. Christine is a moderately successful artist, Alex, having written no more poetry, is the head of a primary school, Zachary runs an extremely successful gallery and Lydia enjoys the fruits of his labour. While I have no doubt at all that Alex would see himself as the fulcrum around which the group revolves, in fact the true lynchpin is easy going Zachary and the book opens with his sudden death. What happens, Hadley asks, when the individual who has been responsible for maintaining a group’s equilibrium, its very understanding of its identity, is suddenly no longer there?
Ironically, perhaps what happens is that Zachary’s passing allows the others to show more clearly who they really are. In the cases of Lydia and Alex, both of whom are intent on getting what they want, this means imposing on and abusing Christine’s friendship and trust. (I may be biased here; I really did not like either of these characters.) Ultimately, however, it is Christine who gains most from the shift in perspective, as she comes to understand the extent to which Zachary’s interpretation of her art and her development, however well intentioned, has distorted her view of who she is as an artist and who she might become. Visiting his last exhibition, staged posthumously at the gallery and featuring the work of an artist with whom he had predicted she would identify, she discovers that the pictures bore her.
[T]hat possibility hadn’t occurred to her, it really was a surprise.… It wasn’t that she thought they were false or pretentious exactly: she could imagine the very authentic journey the artist had made towards these big pale canvases with their silver and grey and white colours, the painstaking exact grids and geometries, fine as quilting. In pursuit of some truth of the spirit she had refined away every intrusion of ugly life: all the dirty marks it made, all its aggression and banally literal languages…She was disappointed – and indignant, too, that Zachary could have thought these works were anything like hers, or these colours.
Despite the self-seeking behaviour of her husband and friend, it is Christine you feel is going to be most capable of redefining herself in a world without Zachary; in fact, of redefining herself in her own terms, as an individual and not in relation to other people. Hadley seems to be particularly concerned with how people influence and are influenced by their partners; the extent to which we define and are defined by those with whom we chose to couple. This is picked up in respect of both daughters, Lydia and Zachary’s Grace, who when we first met her seems only to be able to give meaning to herself through a series of disastrous one-night stands, and Isobel, who, speaking of the man whose child she is expecting, tells Christine,
I know I’m the right person for [him] … I’ll save him from himself, he needs me. We balance up perfectly. Because without me he’s in danger of becoming quite stuffy, such an old fogey… I’ll be good for him.
I found myself reading this novel much more slowly than would normally be the case. I think in part this was because the plot is of minimal importance; it is plot which normally has me saying “just one more chapter”. However, just as important, I would suggest, was the quality of the writing, which simply made me want to savour each sentence. Hadley has not been particularly prolific, but there is a back catalogue and I am very much looking forward to exploring it.