Tessa Hadley is one of our finest writers yet she is ridiculously underappreciated... If you have yet to sample Hadley’s intimate dissections of the emotional lives of the British educated middle classes, then Late in the Day is a good place to start... The silver grids and stripes of literature can stuff it; Hadley is the real deal.
Late in the Day is preoccupied with shifts in relationships over time, but at the beginning of her career as a novelist Hadley was sceptical about the possibility of processing experience into any sort of coherent pattern. One layer of life lies on top of another, oil on water, or simply replaces the one beneath. In one section Clare’s younger sister Tamsin is damaged and destructive, fifty pages later she’s the only sane member of a disordered household, someone the reader is forced to side with, thanks to the high entertainment value of her dialogue, though perhaps struggling to establish the chronology of these very different, equally convincing incarnations.
Her subversive wit is Austenesque; but in many ways she is more like Tyler. Her novels span decades of change. Time itself is a plot-driver — if plot is not too definite a word. Every character is carefully sited on their time lines. These are novels not just of ‘somewhere’, but ‘some-when’: in this, she is reminiscent of Chekhov, in whose plays every character is given an exact age.
Late in the Day, as the title suggests, is again about time — in this case, 30 years of marriage. A long marriage needs to encompass change: ‘Since that beginning, they had both changed their skins so often. Marriage simply meant that you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to.’
The revelation of every detail is perfectly placed. Christine comes into definition slowly: we know from the first page that she does things "intently", but we do not find out what she looks like until page 109, by which point Lydia, now a widow living in the spare room, has introduced a fatal element of sexual competition.
There are flashes of humour, particularly in Alex's extraordinarily coiffed, heavily made-up mother, Margita, who "had learned to do her shopping on a computer - which, like the vases, was displayed on a crocheted doily on the sideboard", but absurdity, with its distancing effect, is not generally what Hadley is after. She is best at wry touches in dialogue.
Her quiet yet emotionally punchy novels are not to be missed - particularly this tale of what happens to the relationships in a group of friends when one of them dies.
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 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.
On its small and tightly worked canvas we encounter two couples living in London in their late middle age, as well as a small number of their children and hangers-on. They have known each other, in various configurations, most of their adult lives. ..But is Hadley writing a novel that maps the ebb and flow of arty north London marriages, or one that engages with larger and frankly more interesting questions of displacement and (in the case of both women especially) independence?... it seems as though Hadley (for good, ambitious reasons) wants to do both. And yet as her narrative unfolds, using a series of flashbacks and leaps forward, the marriage stories loom too large for the other themes to discover their necessary space.
...a subtle, delicate evocation of modern life. Hadley has always been interested in reflections and oppositions; here...she gently brings out the contrasts between the characters, as in a series of paintings or tableaux... Hadley’s observation is pin-sharp: whether describing a contemporary student’s house, a late-night drive, or simply a quiet room with only the reading light turned on, there is a shapely intelligence at work... Late in the Day is a nuanced and supple account of how far-reaching historical events affect us all; how social class can be both a prison and an escape, and how art makes us human.
Why isn’t Tessa Hadley a lot more famous than she is? The answer, perhaps, has to do with how hard it is to describe what makes her such a good novelist without falling into the trap of calling her books “quiet”...Late in the Day is confident, brilliant, dark and interesting. There’s a fun bit in Venice; a weird bit in Czechoslovakia. Is it quiet? Perhaps, but it might also put you off loud books for life.
Throughout her career, Tessa Hadley has explored the middle-class existence, its ennui and its deceptions, with great skill. She has a keen psychological insight that allows her to create multifaceted characters that remain with the reader long after the story has come to an end. It’s no surprise, then, that Late in the Day is a powerful addition to her already distinguished body of work. Really, a rather brilliant novel.
Late in the Day tells the story of two upper-middle-class boho couples who sit around listening to Schubert and saying things like: “Christ, Jules… I don’t want to go dinner at the Fairlies’. We don’t even like the Fairlies.” The characters visit the Venice Biennale, discuss Tarkovsky and, naturally, have affairs with one another. Great tracts of it are set slap bang in the middle of NW3.
But here’s the thing – it’s wonderful. Hadley might not be the most exotic author but she’s an increasingly rare one. In less capable hands, her “low-octane” stories (as one critic dubbed them) about the quotidian aches of marriage, parenthood, ageing and friendship would be grating. But her prose – measured, ironic, disarmingly perceptive – picks up on all the contradictions of human existence. With Hadley, you know there’s an adult in the room.
Hadley moves with ease between perspectives and also back and forth in time, placing scenes from the quartet’s youth against their difficult new reality as a trio. Their shifting passions and allegiances bring to mind Shakespeare’s muddled lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rendered here in the more sober colours of middle age. But while the rest of the novel is very good, it never quite attains the perfect tension of the opening.
Hadley is a cerebral and consciously artful writer...but is possibly most impressive as an analyst of small gestures and an inspired noticer of things... Her descriptions of places — such as the chapel-gallery where Zach conducts his business — have a hallucinatory vividness and everything in the story seems placed and considered with enormous care... With a single flourish, she can make us interested in even the most peripheral characters, and their lives beyond the book.
Hadley is adept at fluid omniscience, at storytelling that skims through the years as easily as it weaves through various points of view... it’s in part Hadley’s unflinching dissection of moments and states of consciousness that makes the Woolf comparisons irresistible, but it’s also her commitment to following digressions both mental and philosophical (a debate, for instance, on the ethics of tourism) rather than pushing away at plot... It’s to her great credit that Hadley manages to be old-fashioned and modernist and brilliantly postmodern all at once... We’ve seen this before, and we’ve never seen this before, and it’s spectacular.
Hadley’s acute consideration of domestic drama and its sober richness has something in common with Margaret Drabble’s early novels, in particular Jerusalem the Golden (1967), which deploys a similar intelligence and distance in an examination of adultery and its aftermath. Just as Christine is finally contemplating life without Alex, and the unlocking of the door to her art studio, which had remained conspicuously and symbolically untouched since Zachary died, Alex is making his own resolutions and admittance of middle-aged compromise: “Sex looked like a cheap trick from the outside, but in a moment it burned up the world. You could not have everything: the whole wisdom of life amounted to that. Whatever you had, was instead of something else.”
A penetrating observer of human behaviour, she has a gift for dialogue that bristles with what remains unsaid. Favourite themes, which recur in Late in the Day, are the urgency of sexual desire, the craving for self-expression, which can derail even the most stable marriage, and the disruptive allure of amoral, sexual women. Banality, she proposes, is an irresistible component of desire.
If I had to pick just one author whose work deserves a far bigger readership, it would have to be Tessa Hadley. Quite how her novels have eluded the big literary prize shortlists, I don’t know. Her notable fans include Hilary Mantel (“[she] recruits admirers with every book”), Zadie Smith (“few writers give me such consistent pleasure”) and Anne Enright.