Tessa Hadley has managed something that few, since Thomas Mann, have achieved. She has made family life exciting. Exploring the dynamics within households and the often problematic relationships between people she has produced a series of well-written, thought-provoking works where her interest in Jane Austen and Henry James shines through and renders the stories a timeless patina.
Taking as its starting point the move of 13 year old Joyce and her widowed mother and sister to southern relatives in the years after the end of the Second World War, the book follows three generations of women and just as Joyce’s mother’s complex relationship is portrayed with a loving distance which enables us to sympathise with as well as dislike the characters, so Joyce’s relationship and eventual marriage with her arts teacher as well as their daughter Zoe’s tumultuous university years and attempts at a life with the brilliant but cold Simon are portrayed in a way as to grab the reader’s interest without becoming clichéd. Zoe’s daughter Pearl’s rebellious nature and sometimes even obnoxious behaviour is described as matter of fact and without sentimentality. The humans portrayed are deeply flawed, and at heart reminds us of ourselves. Aunt Vera seems at once the classical example of the woman looking for something more in life in a time without opportunities for an intelligent woman and the irritating wife and mother who does not appreciate what she has. Likewise her husband comes off as both the chauvinistic cheating husband and the misunderstood man who did not get what he bargained for. It is a marriage which was destined never to be a happy one, yet one in which it is impossible to place the blame. Treating human nature and the way in which we interact with each other, the generation gaps in the story are crossed, forming an entity. She deals with time and space swiftly and effectively thus linking aims and opinions among the family members.
Keeping her distance, Tessa manages to avoid the common pitfalls of ‘women fiction’ and overly sentimental family epics. It is a book in which nothing much happens concretely. Instead the strength lies in the creation of a feeling, and in the effective description of surroundings which make the described life believable. She does not fear describing the mundane and in extension these very mundane aspects of life create intimacy with the characters.