If you loved Tracy Farr’s The Hope Fault or Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses, then you will enjoy The Past (Vintage Books Penguin Random House 2015) by Tessa Hadley. Everything about this book is meditative and slow-moving, while still managing to be immersive and engaging, the characters full of life and the plot sticky with tension.
Four adult siblings gather together in their grandparents’ old house for one final three-week holiday before they make the inevitable decision to sell. The house has always been a place of refuge: their mother took them there as children when she left their father. Their memories of the house itself, the surrounding environment, the local town and the local neighbours are vivid. The setting and sense of place is wrought with intricate detail – the flora and fauna, the weather, the light.
There is Roland, arriving with his new, third, wife, a fiery and glamorous woman from Argentina who is immediately out of place. Sister Alice arrives with Kasim, the son of her ex-boyfriend. Kasim sets about seducing Molly (Roland’s daughter) in a quite lovely rendition of adolescent desire. Fran is annoyed that her husband has avoided the dreaded holiday at the last moment; her two young children are in turn excited and bored by the country and its secrets. When they uncover something frightening hidden in a derelict cottage in the woods, they are bound by their knowledge. And then there is Harriet, the oldest of the adult siblings, who experiences unexpected passion, and pays the price.
This collection of adults and children – each with their own memories, each with their own version of the past, each with their own motivations and agenda – come together at first tentatively, but as the weeks march on, they begin to emerge from their carapaces and reveal vulnerabilities and yearnings to each other, and to themselves. As lust, jealousy, ambition, pretence, affection and pride come to the surface, the reader is absorbed in a story told with remarkable empathy. The understated minutiae of everyday life are highlighted and reflected through the smallest of actions, the lightest of words. The fracturing of family is portrayed with compassion and a sharp, dry humour.
The structure of the book is in three parts: The Present, The Past, and then The Present again, a device that allows the reader to become fully immersed in the here and now, only to be plunged into The Past and all its secrets (which explains much of the ambiguity around The Present), and then to be turned back to The Present at the conclusion, where behaviour and motivations seem very different now that we know what happened years earlier. The book ends with as many questions – perhaps even more – as it began with, although they are different questions, with different meanings. The longings and imaginings of each character will stay with you after the last page; their inner psychological ramblings will haunt you.