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.
...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.
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.
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.”
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.