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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1771

Author: Tessa Hadley (b. 1956)

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First published: 2015, Great Britain

Publisher: Harper (New York). 320 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1968; present day

Locale: A small English coastal town

The Past by Tessa Hadley takes place over a three-week vacation in the English countryside near the ocean. Four siblings are tasked with the decision to sell the family home and have come for one last gathering. While dealing with their present-day lives, the novel also reaches back to the past when three of the siblings lived at the summer home for a brief time during their parents’ turbulent marriage. Comprised of strong characters and evocative landscapes, The Past creates a compelling, yet comforting reading experience.

Principal characters

Fran, the youngest of the four Crane siblings, a schoolteacher with two children.Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

Alice, the middle Crane sister, a passionate artist who struggles to find stability in her life.

Harriet, the oldest sibling, a former revolutionary who works with asylum seekers.

Roland, brother to the three women, a professor and writer at the height of his career.

Pilar, Roland’s beautiful Argentine wife (his third), who is meeting his sisters for the first time.

Molly, Roland’s quiet teenage daughter from a former marriage.

Kasim, the son of Alice’s ex-boyfriend, who accompanies Alice to the family cottage.

Ivy, Fran’s nine-year-old daughter, somewhat spoiled but overall a curious child.

Arthur, Fran’s six-year-old son, quick to follow his older sister’s lead.

Jill, the deceased matriarch of the Crane family.

Tessa Hadley’s sixth novel, The Past, opens with the four Crane siblings—sisters Fran, Alice, and Harriet and their brother Roland—arriving at the family’s long-time rural homestead for a three-week summer vacation. Subtle in structure and storyline, the novel gives Hadley space to develop full characters and a plot that builds to a crashing climax. It is a story rooted in the pastoral setting, particularly the crumbling country house itself, which has deep layers of meaning for each character. The former home of the siblings’ grandparents, the cottage has become a financial burden for the family. The decision to sell it or spend money to restore the roof is the major overarching tension of the novel; however, as happens with many quiet family dramas, The Past deals with much more: how much of the characters’ lives are still lingering in the past, how regret has shaped their adult selves, and what the structure means to them, to the past, and familial legacy.

“The house was a white cube two storeys high, wrapped around on all four sides by garden, with French windows and a veranda at the back and a lawn sloping to a stream; the walls inside were mottled with brown damp, there was no central heating and the roof leaked,” Hadley writes, creating the setting skillfully. When Alice arrives at the house with her ex-boyfriend’s son Kasim, in his twenties, she notices that her sister Harriet is already there, but off on a hike in the acreage surrounding the home, and Alice has forgotten her keys. She and Kasim approach the French windows and look in on the cottage, further describing the setting within, including glimmering wallpaper, rooms furnished with her grandparents’ wares, an upright piano, and paintings. Alice has dreamt about this house for years, it is noted, as it holds a life that she’s never found in other surroundings.

With the setting solidly in place at the start, The Past introduces each sibling as they arrive, carefully describing their relationships to each other. Alice, the middle sister, is an artist, a failed actor in fact, who is middle-aged and considered scattered by her siblings. Harriet is the eldest, a stable presence, if not a bit too matronly for her age. Fran is the youngest, married to a musician named Jeff but coming only with her two children, Ivy and Arthur. Roland arrives the next day with a new wife, Pilar, an Argentine lawyer who the sisters have not previously met, and his teenage daughter Molly. Hadley’s way of introducing the characters within the established setting of their ancestral home is masterful, and allows the reader to experience each one through a crisp, unbiased lens. Unlike many family-centric stories, there is no festering sibling rivalry or jealousy here, just normal tension, forcing Hadley to find other, subtler sources of dramatic force.

The house holds a mythical quality as events unfold within and outside. A romance develops between Molly and Kasim, the sisters bond over dinner after dinner, and Ivy and Arthur explore the boundaries between reality and the supernatural. Most notably, the house acts as a way for the siblings to recall their mother, Jill, who died at a young age from cancer (it was Harriet, in fact, who raised Fran), their absentee father, and the lives of their grandparents, a homemaker and a religious man who was also a great poet. Nearby, the children regularly explore an abandoned cottage, which becomes an alternate realm for them, where they slowly and steadily find independent footing away from the watchful eyes of the adults.

The novel is separated into three parts, with action set in the present bookending a flashback to when Jill brought Harriet, Roland, and Alice to live with their grandparents at the cottage. Hadley uses the first portion to construct the inner and outer lives of her main characters, alluding to their dead mother in details and establishing the homestead as a place of great importance to the family. When the novel transitions to the past, Hadley introduces us to the siblings’ mother as a young woman who has just left her husband, Tom, and fled to the house in the country. Hadley brings Jill and Tom to life at a critical juncture, and discloses some family secrets at the same time. The layering of the past and present members of the family is particularly effective in that the reader is allowed to see the direct results of choices of the past, while also creating a grander landscape by incorporating the members of four generations, from Jill’s own parents to Jill to the four siblings to their offspring.

Central relationships of the book include the love affair between Molly and Kasim and a budding friendship between Pilar and Harriet. However, much of the novel revolves around those relationships and expectations of one’s life that never quite found their footing. Harriet regrets never having found love, while Alice wonders if she has been too frivolous. The otherwise successful Roland is on his third marriage, and Fran is worried about her marriage to the absent Jeff. The central conflicts of the novel are those inside of the characters. Hadley uses this to deftly explore the nuances of ambiguity, uncertainty, and quiet tension and introduce important character development. Despite the fact that novel ends with an explosive climax, The Past celebrates the smaller moments of its characters’ lives.

Hadley, a native of England herself, has written five previous novels, as well as several collections of short stories and a work of nonfiction. The Past continues her trademark style of writing largely realistic fiction that focuses on the details of contemporary British life—Hadley’s other novels are all also set in Great Britain and occur between 1950 and the present day. A focus on women is another hallmark of her work, exploring their worlds as they transition through stages of life like marriage, raising children, divorce, and meeting and maintaining relationships with friends and lovers, all the while examining the delicate balances and imbalances created by life. Hadley’s women characters are typically smart and resourceful, and this standard is carried on in the complex Crane sisters. Similarly, The Past picks up subtle themes regarding sexuality, class issues, and modern society that have also permeated Hadley’s other works.

Critical reception of The Past has been largely positive. This novel has been called the most commercial of Hadley’s works, but most reviewers appreciated her continued exploration of the interior life of characters, life outside the city center, the relationships between women, particularly as they age, and family dynamics. Anthony Quinn said of the book in his review for the Guardian, “In her patient, unobtrusive, almost self-effacing way, Tessa Hadley has become one of this country’s great contemporary novelists. She is equipped with an armoury of techniques and skills that may yet secure her a position as the greatest of them.” Margot Livesey reviewed the novel for the Boston Globe and had a similar stance, saying, “I finished “The Past’’. . . with a sense that I had understood something profound about both Hadley’s characters, and my own life. Many readers will, I suspect, in the presence of this exhilarating novel feel the same.” Livesey also noted similarities between the book and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day’’ and Ian McEwan’s “Atonement.” Writing for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Fernanda Eberstadt found that Hadley occasionally explains her characters’ emotions too much in The Past, but stated that even if the book was not quite as sharp as her previous works, it was an enjoyable entry in her growing catalog.

Upon the novel’s shocking climax and slow resolve, The Past seems to tell readers that the events of the story won’t unimaginably alter the lives of its characters. Though it would be easy to label such an understated story inconsequential, or even boring, Hadley’s skill with language means that nothing is farther from the truth. In fact, the smaller details that have forged the strong bonds evident between the family members and others are what allow them to survive the more dramatic moments of life. The final message of the novel steers the reader back to the deep past, reassuring readers that life is cyclical, and people are rarely destroyed by it.

Review Sources

  • Charles, Ron. “Family Tensions Simmer in Tessa Hadley’s Exquisite Novel ‘The Past.’” Review of The Past, by Tessa Hadley. The Washington Post, 22 Dec. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/family-tensions-simmer-in-tessa-hadleys-exquisite-novel-the-past/2015/12/22/9798cb12-a597-11e5-ad3f-991ce3374e23_story.html. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
  • Eberstadt, Fernanda. Review of The Past, by Tessa Hadley. The New York Times, 22 Jan. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/books/review/the-past-by-tessa-hadley.html. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
  • Livesey, Margot. Review of The Past, by Tessa Hadley. The Boston Globe, 2 Jan. 2016, www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2016/01/02/book-review-the-past-tessa-hadley/Ju0prpRxjoceEKkHxMqnfN/story.html. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
  • Quinn, Anthony. “The Past by Tessa Hadley Review—a Brilliant Excavation of Family and Inheritance.” Review of The Past, by Tessa Hadley. The Guardian, 28 Aug. 2015, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/28/the-past-by-tessa-hadley-review. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.

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