Philip Womack

Questioning tales

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Married Love

Tessa Hadley

Cape, pp. 242, £

Tessa Hadley’s previous book, The London Train, was one of the best novels of last year, though overlooked by prize committees. It concerned the gently disentangling lives of a pair of middle-class couples, and found its strengths in numinous revelations of the everyday.

These short stories (all previously printed in magazines such as Granta and The New Yorker) explore, with a questioning intelligence, a mostly similar territory. Here people try to shore up their lives as best they can in the face of vicissitudes. They do so by reaching out to others, often in the face of convention; and by trying to square life with the worlds that they create in their heads, and that are created around them in the forms of fiction.

Hadley is intently aware of her characters’ responses to imagined worlds — from the cave paintings at Lascaux, in the subtle ‘In the Cave’, to a film made by a character’s deceased husband in ‘Post-production’. Questions of status also abound — Hadley can delineate adroitly between the most subtle castes (‘The family Stella came from weren’t the Sloane kind of posh’, she writes in ‘In the Country’.)

There is always a sense of latent power in even the most mundane of actions, as when, in the standout ‘Friendly Fire’, she makes cleaning a sink into something eloquent and poignant. She is adept at drawing her tales into climaxes that are often static, in terms of action (two women sitting in a car at the end of ‘Friendly Fire’; a girl and a young man leaning at a well, in the intensely beautiful ‘Because the Night’), but swirling with possibility, hope, and, always, interrogation, as if each story ended not with a full stop, but with a question mark.

It is this that marks out Hadley as one of the most interesting writers around. The title story, ‘Married Love’, is typical of her concerns, depicting a family in crisis as a prim, talented,19-year-old violinist announces that she is going to get married. Not such a bad thing, you might think — except that her intended, a composer and teacher, is old enough to be her grandfather. Her family is aghast — it will never last, they confidently proclaim; but she goes through with it; the best reason for why is given by her perceptive brother: ‘He knew how passionately she succumbed to the roles she dreamed up for herself. She won’t be able to get out of this one, he thought. She can’t stop now.’ This sense of inevitability pulses sinisterly throughout the pages.

Though a couple of the stories don’t quite retain her acuity (‘Journey Home’, for instance, about a plane journey delayed by snow), this collection shows a writer quietly growing in style, perception and grace. She conveys to the reader that rare ability to see completely into someone else’s head.