Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

"Bad dreams" by Tessa Hadley (Vintage, 2017)

Stories from New Yorker (7), Prospect etc.

The prose is matter-of-fact - no fuss, no beautiful sentences. She's happy to tell rather than show, so she can get on with the story. Here's an example

Edith was thirty-four and lively and not bad-looking and had always expected to get married, but humiliatingly she had to own up to Fitz that this was her first experience of love - certainly of what she shyly called 'intimate relations'. Fitz was the most intelligent man Edith had ever got anywhere close to; his dry humour and his good taste, and his appreciation of her, changed her life as drastically as if she found footprints on an island where she'd been beginning to believe she was alone. (p.59)

She's prepared to dip out of the prevailing PoV for a paragraph to make a point, even if it only a little point - e.g. "yet he was aware of the girl standing somewhere upstairs" (p.19) in a mostly Jane-PoV piece, or "This different music rolled and rippled up and down the notes, joyous and mournful, lingering and delaying, holding back with painful sweetness" (p.74) where we see things through a young girl's eyes. On p.118 "the child paddled her toes in the hair of the white goatskin rug. Gleaming, uncanny, half reverted to its animal past, the rug yearned to the moon, which was balanced on the top of the wall at the back of the paved yard".

In "One Saturday Morning" there's a "Chekhov's Gun" rude letter and then the narrator (a young girl) sees her mother with another man. The connection is made for us - "She pictured herself making a joke at breakfast the next day about her mother dancing on the balcony with Don Smith, and then she knew she mustn't, and grew hot with the memory of the rude letter, her wrong judgement of what was funny and what was shaming" (p.84).

In several of the stories, the main character, alone, has the chance to explore a room or house - often one they knew. Marina explores the old man's big house that she used to pass as a child, Laura is house-sitting and exploring attics, a little girl explores her house in the middle of the night, Claire re-explores the house where she grew up when the rest are in bed, etc. The characters - in childhood, recovering from a separation, or having had a medical diagnosis - are perhaps symbolically re-evaluating their body or past.

The women like to feel they're in control of situations. It can become a game - "Sally was trying her power on this boy" (p.215)

She's a much admired writer, but she hits my blindspot. Pieces like "Deeds not words" do little for me. "Silk Brocade" involves a time-jump - 1953 to 1972 - with a tidy plot, the correspondences diagramable. "Flight" is my favourite story. I grew to like "Under the sign of the moon" too, though the dream was too convenient. "An Abduction" is beginning to grow on me. Here are some plot notes

  • An Abduction - Jane Allsop gets a lift from a car of boys to one of their homes. She loses her virginity there to Daniel, who spends the rest of the night with Fiona, Nigel's sister (the house belongs to Fiona and Nigel's parents). She explores the house. At the end we jump to Jane's divorce in her mid-fifties, and hear how Daniel settled down.
  • The Stain - Marina cares for an old man - "She told him that she had been looking at this house all her life ... When she went up to dust the bedrooms on the second floor, which were never used, she liked to stand dreaming, looking down from the windows on her old life in the street below". Wendy, the man's daughter, visits most days. He leaves the house to Marina in his will. She turns it down, which angers her husband.
  • Deeds not words - Miss Mulhouse, a suffragette, is a heroine at the school where she's a teacher. Colleagues Edith and Fitz have an affair - Edith's form of liberation. Fitz is married. He goes off to war.
  • One Saturday morning - Carrie, 10, is alone in the house when a family friend Dom arrives. When her parents return Dom tells them that her wife's died. Later, Carrie sees Dom kiss her mother at a party.
  • Experience - Freshly divorced, Laura house-sits for Hana, explores the personal items (diaries, keepsakes) in the attic, goes out with the house-owner ex.
  • Bad Dreams - A child wakes up in the dark, wanders in the flat, turns chairs upside down, goes back to sleep. Next morning her mother thinks her father had a fit of anger
  • Flight - Claire returns from Philadelphia to the UK for work ("Her role was in cultivating their long-term relationships with the manufacturers who used these instruments; she had to coax people into doing what she knew would work best for them", p.138), pops in to see her family in Leeds unannounced. Her sister Susan, who'd nursed their parents through their final illnesses, refuses to talk to her (Compare with "Breathe" from Mark Haddon's "The Pier Falls" collection (2017)).
  • Under the sign of the moon - Greta, 60 has survived a cancer scare. She takes a train to Liverpool to see her daughter Kate, meeting a much younger (though rather strange) man on the train who seems interested in her. She turns him down. Greta compares her alternative lifestyle in her 20s with that of her daughter.
  • Her share of sorrow - Ruby, a rather plain, untalented girl in a pretty, talented family, starts writing a novel to the delight of her parents, but shows it to no one. When her brother finds it, he discovers it's a tacky Romance. Ruby completes the novel, killing off everybody except Lady Carole
  • Silk Brocade - Ann and Kit make expensive wedding dresses. One day an old, dumpy schoolmate drops in, asking for a dress. She had nursed a rich man to health and was marrying him. Ann, Kit and boyfriends visit her new, big house to collect material. The groom-to-be suddenly dies. With the material Ann makes a jacket that years later her daughter leaves at the house while visiting.

Other reviews

  • KJ Orr (This is writing of great nuance and psychological acuity. In these stories – predominantly concerning girls and women, with settings ranging from the present day to early last century – thresholds are crossed, the familiar is thrown off. ... One of Hadley’s striking achievements in this collection is setting up a tension between life lived moment by moment, “closely as a skin”, and events viewed from the outside, from positions of separation – of exile, dislocation or dispossession. ... Bad Dreams is remarkable not only for Hadley’s penetrating engagement with her subject matter, but for her extraordinary and distinctive range.)
  • Helen McAlpin (Her meticulously observed, extraordinarily perceptive stories are as satisfying as Alice Munro's. Yes, Hadley is that good. ... "Abduction," a standout in a book of standouts)
  • Claire Jarvis (The impossibility of forgetting something bad once you have known it runs like a current through these peculiar stories.)
  • Leah Hager Cohen (Hadley’s spell — and she is a spellbinding writer — derives its power from the way she keeps the uncanny almost precisely counterbalanced with the commonplace. No, that’s wrong: It’s the way she discloses the uncanny within all that is commonplace. Ever so deftly, ever so coolly, she flips over the surface and gives us a glimpse of the repellent or the beguiling or, more often, the repellent-beguiling thing underneath. ... These pages are rife with finely jarring details and apparently minor trespasses that turn out to reverberate. ... the title story, a small masterpiece)
  • Sara Cutaia (A few stories are less memorable, such as “Deeds Not Words,” where an all-girls school deals with the women’s suffrage movement tangentially through a character who is preoccupied with her own love affair — full of potential but not executed to fruition. And though I enjoyed “One Saturday Morning” for its childlike perspective, the front half, full of self-contained observations, didn’t engage me; the shocker came twelve pages too late. Perhaps the only weak point in the collection are the stories’ final pages — sometimes abrupt, sometimes trying too hard for ambiguity.)

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