In this collection of short stories Tessa Hadley shows that she is a real mistress of the genre. She beckons us into the family scenarios she creates so persuasively that we recognise ourselves and our friends amongst the characters and almost relax into the familiarity of the drama as it unfolds. At the same time unexpected events happen, memories surface which surprise us and unsettle us, stories end with a feeling of unease. Now, that feeling of recognition may not be a universal response, because Hadley writes predominantly about a middle class milieu- but the middle class net is spread wide to include the artistic lovie set as well as more ordinary families living conventional lives in the suburbs and what she does so brilliantly is to observe and narrate the subtle nuances of the British class system as well as to depict its fluidity.
So in ‘ A mouthful of cut glass’ 70s students Sheila and Neil are visiting their respective families in the vacation. Neil’s family live in a former slum in Birmingham, whereas Sheila’s eccentric middle class family inhabit a freezing rectory in East Anglia. Their differences and discomfits are summed up by Neil’s mother whispering audibly to her husband at night that she can’t get on with Sheila because she has an accent like a mouthful of cut glass, whereupon Sheila silently scoffs at her mixing of metaphors: it’s either ‘ talking through a mouthful of plums’ or ‘ an accent like cut glass’ for heaven’s sake! With her own family Sheila is tiptoeing around the possibility of them mocking Neil’s accent and then taken aback to see Neil and her father bonding over a mutual interest in the Knox family and local history. In this new world where social differences have been eroded by the massive expansion of university education, class solidarity becomes less well defined and Sheila’s semi playful act at the end of the story is an almost tribal response.
In the story ‘In the Country’ we’re presented with a rather different middle class milieu- Stella Lavery, former political activist and Spare Rib journalist, confident and beautiful still at 60-is celebrating her birthday with husband Colin and children Cordelia, Rose and Ed. Here too we have class mobility in the form of Colin singing Geordie songs from his youth in Tyneside. The event is narrated this time by an outsider in the shape of Julie, Ed’s wife, who is both at ease with the family, yet still, as an in-law, stands a little way apart. And it is later revealed that she sees herself as hovering only on the edge of the Lavery’s social circle as she herself has not been to university. By chance she is thrown together with Seth, Cordelia’s new boyfriend and another outsider, and the story takes an unexpected turn.
Differences in generational as well as class perspective are explored in ‘Pretending’. Here the narrator looks back as an adult on her almost transgressive childhood friendship with Roxanne from the Homes. In contrasting her own safe and predictable childhood with Roxanne’s almost exotically different background we experience her fascination for this very different girl. The narrator presents the friendship as almost illicit because of the parents’ quietly stated disapproval. And the matter of fact and understated tone invites us as adult readers to ponder on the motivation and behaviour of Roxanne both as a child and when she briefly reappears as a 17 year old in the narrator’s life.
Finally, my favourite in the collection is the one story which is clearly not set in a middle class milieu: ‘Friendly Fire’ which is an account of cleaner Shelley’s early morning shift in the factory where she works with her friend Pam, who runs the business. The story is told from Shelley’s point of view and combines her musing and worrying about her children, Anthony who is serving in the army in Afghanistan and pregnant teenager Kerry. She ruminates on her own diminishing libido and mourns the passing of sexual passion. She worries about Pam working non stop while husband John sits in front of the telly, supposedly invalided off work. Her stream of worried consciousness is regularly interrupted by describing the muck she is cleaning up, especially in the mens’ urinals and their cheery slovenliness as the men start coming in for their shift. I really enjoyed reading Shelley’s voice here while it gradually dawned on me that I and most women I know have similar thought patterns while going about our daily lives, worrying about our children, mulling over the lives of people close to us and yes, dealing with the physical changes of middle age.
And hey- don’t forget the desert boots! The collection is pleasingly sprinkled with references to the 70s- the desert boots, the loon pants, the ‘crushed-velvet top embroidered with mirrors’. These details give texture to the narrative but on a personal level provided me, while reading, with a bridge back to a former self. Thank you Tessa.