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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Portrait Of Middle Class Life

The Past: A novel - Tessa Hadley

Three sisters, their brother and his new wife, along with assorted children and teenagers, spend a summer holiday in a house in the country that used to belong to their grandparents where they indulge their insecurities, engage in flirtations, misunderstand each other, wilfully or otherwise, and rehearse old grievances. There is also an extended flashback to the breakdown of their parents' marriage forty years earlier, an event that had a profound impact upon them all.

 

It's a beautifully observed study of a particular strata of modern English life - liberal, self-indulgent, faintly apologetic  - and the portrait is painstakingly built up, detail by detail. I can see why some critics have described Tessa Hadley as one of England's finest novelists.

 

I was reminded in places of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Like Howard, Hadley distributes the perspective equally among the characters, young and old; like Howard, she has a tendency to summarise dialogue rather than reproduce it faithfully. - something that I found rather irritating; and like Howard, Hadley's sensibility is so very English and so middle-class.

 

My problem with it, however, is that there is absolutely no story. I don't necessarily want a driving plot every time I read a novel but I do like to have some sense of momentum. Otherwise I find it simply too much like hard work; and that is how I felt about this: the characters and their world are exquisitely drawn but the whole thing is so terribly dull.