Book review: Married Love

LIKE a gemologist, Tessa Hadley can spot the treasure hidden inside the grubby, misshapen knot of human experience.

Deploying prose as sharp as a diamond chisel, she strikes cleanly and precisely, releasing gems that reflect life in all its dazzling facets. I find myself reading her in a halting fashion, stopping repeatedly to say, “Yes! Exactly that!”

This emotional precision is much in evidence in Married Love, Hadley’s latest collection containing a dozen short stories, many of which were originally published in the New Yorker, Granta, and other journals.

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The stories reveal that social place and class are very much on Hadley’s mind. Focussed intently on domestic scenarios, they bear out the assertion Hadley made to one interviewer that, “my kind of writing deals with minute shifts and undercurrents of consciousness”. As in real life, Hadley’s characters glance off one another, making connections that are serious and long-lasting, as well as those that are more casual, and her gift is to show us, in a very unshowy way, how interior landscapes are subtly altered by these collisions.

In the title story, a childlike 19-year-old music student, Lottie, announces her intention to wed her 45 years older, married tutor. Her unmarried parents are initially baffled, then outraged, but let her go through with it, convinced, even as the couple take their vows, that it won’t last. Younger brother Noah also understands that Lottie’s painted herself into a corner. “He knew how passionately she succumbed to the roles she dreamed up for herself. She won’t be able to get out of this one, he thought. She can’t stop now.”

Lottie is transformed from a promising talent into a creature in awe of the faithless husband she deems to be “a great man”. Babies come, and she slides into genteel poverty while her husband retreats to his ex-wife’s (and his former) home, where it’s cosy and he’s well provided for. The scales fall from Lottie’s eyes, but that doesn’t extinguish hope, and in the devastating last lines, Hadley describes her listening intently to her husband rummaging around in the kitchen, “as if she might hear in it something that was meant for her”.

The timelessness of this tale is enhanced by the shortage of clues fixing it to a specific year. It might be describing women of the last generation, who married to escape their families. It might be a wry comment on the downside of permissive modern parenting, or the danger of getting what you wish for. It certainly underscores the perfidy of suave Lothiarios who do not feel beholden to polite society’s rules of conduct.

I take my hat off to this act of compression, and understand perfectly why that other superb practitioner of the art, Anne Enright, deems Hadley’s work “extremely subversive” – all the more so because you’re not even sure what’s being overthrown.

There’s a nice echoing effect throughout, by the inclusion of tales that approach similar themes from slightly skewed angles. Social stratification is the nub of “A Mouthful of Cut Glass” and “The Trojan Prince”, stories about young adults whose efforts to relate across class barriers only underscores their own inherent prejudices.

In “Friendly Fire” we meet a mother who deliberately wears herself out on a disgusting cleaning job to distract herself from obsessively checking her texts, fearful of receiving one informing her of her soldier son’s death in Afghanistan. Similarly, “Journey Home” finds Alec fretting over his mentally unstable sister, and again fixates on text messages, this time those that remain unanswered during a flight delayed by a severe snowstorm. Both stories recreate the quiet intensity of a nagging worry, without descending into histrionics.

“Because the Night” uses the setting of a family party to explore unusual alliances in a bohemian household. Hadely deftly conjures the bitchiness of the party’s guests, whose rancour is barely concealed.

“In the Cave” is a blisteringly unsentimental depiction of a one-night stand. Linda is making a silent getaway from an unnamed paramour found through the personal ads. “Now she drowned in shame at the idea of the sprightly words she’d used in her own description, so wincingly, anxiously calculated to lead to just this moment.” She is let down that he fell asleep promptly after sex, “as if this oblivion was what he’d desired and she’d been merely the passage through to it.”

Ultimately, she replays the evening in her mind, searching for where it all went wrong. It was, “one of those tiny twitches in conversation that … tear fissures in the moment, out of which power and pleasure drain.”

Hadley’s gift is to make small moments such as these sparkle and reveal their importance.

• Married Love by Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £14.99