Book review: Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

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Quickly described, Clever Girl, the new novel from Tessa Hadley, is the story of a woman’s life, from childhood to middle age. Like that John Lewis advert of a few years ago, it moves briskly through 50 years, touching down on experiences that will be very familiar to white, first-world women born during the second half of the 20th century.

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £16.99

Stella, 50, narrates with all the hindsight you’d expect from an intelligent woman who has achieved equilibrium through a reasonably happy marriage, fulfilling work, and the pleasure of seeing her children turning out all right. This trick of narration enables Hadley to show us Stella at her most innocent and uncomprehending, and also at her most incisive. Hers is an undramatic voice, somewhat aloof even when describing terrible events and emotions.

That’s not to say that the book lacks Hadley’s trademark insights, which twinkle like points of light through a pierced lantern. But spread over the course of 300 pages, the effect is less breathtaking than it is in her brilliant, perfectly-pitched short stories. It took a bit of recalibration on this reader’s part to settle in for the long haul.

Stella is told that her father is dead, but in truth, he walked out on his family. We learn both facts in the novel’s opening sentence, setting the tone for a story that occurs simultaneously in the active present and the wised-up future. Her family is constrained by notions of propriety. “So many things that seem quaint now were current and powerful then: shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would work themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you from the inside.”

History, real and contrived, proceeds to repeat itself, perhaps to illustrate the way that family patterns persist unless great effort is made to break free. Valentine, the sexually ambiguous father of her first son, born when she’s 18, emigrates to America, and she contains the secret of her pregnancy – and her shame – her entire life. Her second son’s father is murdered – the how and why artfully spun out in the book’s tensest chapter, which is a masterclass in manipulating linear narrative.

One of the book’s themes is the ways that men change women’s lives, whether by their absence, their brutality, or the simple act of taking up residence – as with the arrival of a stepfather, and later, a husband. Exacerbating this is Stella’s passivity: she waits for others to determine her personality. A different sort of clever teenager might have had an abortion, or given her child up for adoption, but Stella is washed along on wave after wave of circumstance, taking a very long time to stand on her own two feet.

Partly she’s empowered by the books she abandoned with that early pregnancy. “I think I felt cheated, as if the books I’d loved had held out a promise of strong, bright, meaningful happenings they couldn’t deliver. If I’d read more carefully I’d have seen that falling off a track and nosing round and round unhappily in a tight circle was what most books described.” Which is definitely the world that this book describes.

She has an affair with a married man, breaks it off, and, at 30, goes to university. “It was such a relief to be clever at last. For years I had had to keep my cleverness cramped and concealed – not because it was dangerous or forbidden, but because it had no useful function in my daily life. In the wrong contexts, cleverness is just an inhibiting clumsiness.” But after graduating she surprises everyone, including herself, by forsaking academia to train as an occupational therapist.

After four years her lover, newly single, returns, and they marry – which she instantly, though not permanently, regrets. “That’s what marriage is like, I think – this squeezing of two natures into one space which doesn’t fit either of them.”

The novel’s close finds Stella returning to her old neighbourhood. Valentine has finally returned to his mother’s house, and she pays a visit, stepping into a scene of frozen decay reminiscent of Miss Havisham. As confrontations go, theirs is a non-starter: Valentine has forgotten her wholly and utterly, whereas she remembers every last detail of their shared past.

This is a slow, steady novel. Everything and nothing happens. In that respect it is painfully lifelike. The truth may be stranger than fiction, but generally it’s much more mundane than fiction. Clever Girl is a big gamble, but for the most part, Hadley pulls it off.