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One man’s death, and what came after

Marion McLeod reviews Late in the Day, a “smooth and sinuous and subtle” new novel by Tessa Hadley

We begin with a death, a very good place to start. Where better to assemble and introduce family and friends? What more useful springboard for exploring their relationships?

Tessa Hadley does all this superbly, with economy, elegance and precision. The first two pages belong to Christine, a self-described minor artist. It’s late in the day, a summer’s evening, nine o’clock. Christine and her husband Alexandr are listening to music in their first-floor London flat. The sitting room window looks out over a wide street lined with plane trees. Parakeets zip across from the park. We’re in a green and pleasant suburb.

The music is “Schubert or something”. Her husband’s choice. Christine recognises but cannot identify it. She’s listening intensely, so it takes time for the ringing of the landline to break through into her consciousness, and longer for her to locate the handset. It’s probably her mother. Or their daughter Isobel. The handset is nowhere to be seen, lost somewhere under piles of books and papers. Christine abandons the search and races upstairs to the attic bedroom. Two stairs at a time – she can still do it, though only just.

She’s breathless as she throws herself on the bed and picks up the extension. There’s a confusion of noises. It’s Lyd. At the hospital. It’s Zachary, she says, her voice heavy, slurring, “as if something in it had come loose”.

He was at the gallery… One minute he was fine, the next he keeled over.
And what’s happening now? Are they going to operate?
Why aren’t you listening, Christine? I told you, he’s dead.

The two women are best friends, they go way back. When they first met at their girls’ grammar school, they “had felt such relief at finding each other’s irony”. Both had “the subversive earnestness of true dissenters”. Christine, the product of a very happy childhood, was drawn to Lydia’s intensity: “It promised adventures.” (The duo is occasionally reminiscent of Elena Ferrante’s Lenù and Lila in My Brilliant Friend.)

But Hadley’s novel has at its heart a quartet, who got together in their twenties, paired off, married, and remained good friends for decades. The husbands, Alexandr and Zachary, were at school together, too, but they boarded at a public school. Their exiled families (from Bratislava and the Ukraine) believed the traditional English system would protect their sons. Both boys, predictably enough, were thoroughly unhappy. They formed a society of two, which sometimes took in other strays.

Alex, who was to be a poet, spoke English perfectly. “That had been the first great conscious effort of his life, to pass as belonging; but he existed inside those words as if inside an alien shell, whose forms were not quite his – this made survival easier.” His primary duty, as he saw it, was to protect Zachary, who was so unguarded.

Alexandr’s protection cannot extend to the day when Zachary falls to the floor of his fashionable south London gallery. But he resolves that he will protect his friend’s widow, Lydia, and also their only child Grace, who is studying art in Glasgow. Alexandr takes charge, insists that the death be kept under wraps, that nobody tell Grace. What if her father’s death were announced on a mobile phone? Imagine if she found out on Facebook. Alexandr is Grace’s godfather: he will drive to Glasgow, he will find Grace and break the sad news. And so now we meet the next generation: Grace and Isobel and Sandy, Alexandr’s son from his first marriage. Sandy is Christine’s stepson, whom she struggles to love.

In the aftermath of the death, they all struggle. How to protect Lydia? Alexandr and Christine invite her to come and stay with them, and her arrival changes everything. The trio’s shifting relationships provide the present-time plot, the “what will happen now?” that turns the pages.

These developments are interwoven, incredibly smoothly, with the past. Hadley also switches viewpoints, frequently but never ever awkwardly. The childhoods, the meetings, the courting, the parenting. So much shared history. A trip to the Venice Biennale, for instance. And now this shocking death which sets both present and past wobbling. Though the telling remains crystal clear – so assured it might seem cold, were it not so graceful.

Late in the Day is Tessa Hadley’s seventh novel and, I’m sorry to say, my first. I intend to track down and read the first six, plus her three collections of short stories, several of which appeared first in the New Yorker. I have meant to read her, have scribbled her name in notebooks and on scruffy bits of paper.

So why have I waited till so late in the day? I’m not the only one – my amateur survey elicited similar responses. Tessa Hadley, yes, the name rings a bell but no, they haven’t read her. Why? Most commonly because she’s “too domestic perhaps?”

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Domestic, yes. Just as Virginia Woolf is domestic. And Henry James. Tessa Hadley did a doctoral thesis on James: “Pleasure and propriety in Henry James”. I guess James must have taught Hadley a lot about sentence construction, but her fiction, while sharing his acuity, has a style very much more fluid. It achieves complexity without ever drawing attention to itself. It is smooth and sinuous and subtle. Extraordinary.

Born in 1956, Hadley read English at Cambridge, taught briefly, and then brought up three sons and three stepsons, surely excuse enough for any procrastination on the writing front. Her first published novel, Accidents in the Home, came out when she was 46. She is now professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University, where her research interests include Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen. That all makes perfect sense, especially the Elizabeth Bowen.

Late in the Day is domestic, yes, and it’s peopled by the chattering classes, who can be an interesting lot against the odds. Christine and Alexandr and Lydia and Zachary, and their set, care about education, politics, and the arts. They have reached late middle age: death has arrived among them with its sobering scythe. Yet this novel has humour, too, and a heap of compassion. Hadley’s light touch and swift pen delight in capturing human foibles, though for the most part she comes not to skewer but to make us smile. Read her.

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape, $48) is available at Unity Books.


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