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The PastReview - The Past
Tessa Hadley
by Caroline Lennon
Dreamscape, 2016
Review by Christian Perring
Apr 19th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 16)

The Past has 3 sections: the first and last are set in present day England with 4 siblings getting together in an old country house for three weeks in the summer, while the middle one is set in the late 1960s, with the rocky relationship of the parents of these siblings.  There are three sisters and a brother, and they have been coming to this holiday location for years. Naturally there are some tensions between them, and they not all enthusiastic about spending this time in the same place every year. Alice is the main force behind getting everyone else to do it. She does not have children and she feels socially awkward.  Her sister Harriet is also without children, but she is more worldly and idealistic, it seems. Their sister Fran has two young children, and works as a teacher.  Their brother Roland is a university professor, and is arriving with Molly, his 16-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage, and his new South American wife Pilar.  The group is rounded out by a young man, 20-year-old Kasim, who is the son of Alice's ex. The relationships are complicated. Roland is distant from his sisters, but Alice misses how close they used to be. Alice argues with Pilar while Harriet grows close to her. Molly and Kasim start a romance.  The younger children act out, find out secrets, and misunderstand what they mean. The group are thoroughly enmeshed and the confinement together crystalized the tensions and longings between them.

There's some drama near the end of the book, but most of the plot is very slow moving. It's a psychological novel that pays close attention to the thoughts and feelings of the three sisters and the young people. The brother is much less important to the story. Fans of the book praise the beautiful writing, while detractors complain how boring it is. It's easy to suspect that while the book may be deeper than it first seems, it doesn't have much to say that it distinctive. It is no surprise that families keep secrets and people harbor secret longings.

If there is a theme that goes beyond the usual family drama, it is to do with politics and internationalism. Kasim's family is from India, Pilar is from Argentina, and a character in the middle section is heavily involved in the student uprising in Paris in 1968. There's only brief exploration of what's actually going on in different countries, but there is more on how it affects those in England. This international theme brings to mind the novels of Jonathan Franzen, but there's less detail here than in Franzen's often laborious and labyrinthine implausible plots. Hadley's story only gestures at vague ideas about the effects of the past, and doesn't have much more to suggest than there is some effect. Nevertheless, the economical and evocative text is pleasing enough to win the reader over.

The performance of the unabridged audiobook by Caroline Lennon is strong: her voice has enough range and variety to keep the characters distinct and her slightly prim tone as narrator works to highlight the occasional bursts of strong emotion. One small complaint about the audiobook production is that the pauses between sections are not long enough, and it gets confusing for the flow of narration to continue without indication that the narrator has moved to a different scene.

 

© 2016 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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