Book review: Late in the Day, Tessa Hadley

Detail from the cover of Late in the Day, by Tessa Hadley
Detail from the cover of Late in the Day, by Tessa Hadley
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Tessa Hadley’s novels don’t make a lot of noise. There is no showing off and there are no clever tricks. They are written out of respect for imagined lives, and for the art and craft of fiction. She eschews oddity. Her prose is a form of civilised conversation. She has a keen eye and an alert ear. Late in the Day is a very good novel indeed.

It is a novel of a kind more fashionable 30 or 40 years ago than now – what used to be called, with some disapproval, a Hampstead novel. The characters do indeed live in or around that borough in North London, and they are comfortably off, engaged in the arts, occupied with personal relationships, while their marriages are more fragile than may at first seem likely. Well, all one can say is that such people are just as suitable subjects for fiction as anyone from a more edgy background.

Reading this novel recalled two observations about the subject matter of fiction. First,way back in 1936, someone asked the novelist Rose Macaulay if she had read Evelyn Waugh’s new novel, A Handful of Dust. She replied that she hadn’t, remarking “adultery in Mayfair – not a very interesting subject.” Almost immediately she corrected herself: “that was a silly thing to say. The interest of a subject depends entirely on how it is treated.” Second, someone once told Kingsley Amis that the novelist Elizabeth Taylor, whose work Amis had been praising, wasn’t “important.” Kingsley replied: “Importance isn’t important. Good writing is important.”

Late in the Day centres on two couples, Alex and Christine, Zachary and Lydia, who have been friends since they were young 30 years ago. Alex, son of a Polish novelist who wrote nothing after he escaped Poland, is a poet and teacher, his wife Christine a painter. Zachary, from a rich Jewish family, owns a fashionable gallery; Lydia whose parents kept a pub, is effervescent, lazy and charming, sometimes intense. Way back when they were young, the couplings might have been different. Lydia had a passion for Alex; Zach and Christine seemed comfortably made for each other. But sexual desire leads to a switch of partners and all is well, each pairing the other’s best friends, while their children, a daughter each and the son of Alex’s first marriage, are friends and one at least may hope for more than friendship.

The novel opens with news of Zach’s sudden unheralded death from a heart attack and Lydia, distraught and at a loss, moves in with Alex and Christine. They soon discover that Zach, kind, cheerful, helpful and enthusiastic, has been the moral centre of their lives. With his disappearance, their moorings are cut, their certainties and patterns disturbed and they find themselves unsettled in a world that is suddenly unfamiliar. What will be the consequences? Can they attain a new balance? Or will they find, as they seek a satisfactory re-adjustment of their lives, that resentment and bitterness corrupt their relations to each other? Alex and Christine have been comfortably together; but Zach’s death opens a breach, as Christine has to realize that Alex sets little value on her work, which Zach had promoted in his gallery.

Hadley writes with the appearance of consummate ease, the result, I would guess, partly of an instinctive natural talent, partly of hard practice and the refinement of her method. She gives the impression of knowing her limits, knowing what she can do and what is not for her, just as surely as Jane Austen and Henry James knew theirs. She has an awareness of the shades of feeling, and she recognises how in marriage or a close relationship, one partner may come to find that he or she has surrendered to the other too much of what matters. She has another admirable quality: she knows when to let silence speak, and she has the rare gift of writing dialogue which both rings true and hints at what had been left unsaid but is keenly and sometimes painfully felt.

Like most novelists today under the age of, say, 70, Hadley has a part-time job teaching Creative Writing at a university. I would think she is likely to be one teacher whose classes would be worth attending. - Allan Massie

Late in the Day, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £16.99