Tessa Hadley's "Clever Girl" is a time-lapse unfurling of the mind of an Englishwoman whose relationships are often stumbling blocks that trip up her ambitions.
Stella is restless throughout girlhood, especially after she moves with her mother into her new stepfather's home. "I feel like an overgrown giant in that house, bumping up against the ceiling like Alice in Wonderland after she's found the cake labeled 'Eat Me': head swollen with knowledge and imagination, body swollen with sensation and longing."
She hopes to use her mind's agility to escape the drudgery endured by her working-class Bristol family. But her cleverness doesn't mean that Stella bypasses the traps of the world: teen pregnancy, single motherhood, service work.
First-person narration humanizes these vignettes, bringing us into sympathetic proximity to Stella's life. Although she is often emotionally adrift, even while deeply involved with the adults around her, she is tethered by her love for her children. It is to them that she returns after brief flights from her daily slog: "I'd once read Beckett and Burroughs — now I imagined these authors as my enemies because I thought they'd have despised the things I had no choice but to spend my life on: washing, cooking, shopping, cleaning."
There is passion and love and friendship in Stella's life, but she's discontented until she returns to her studies: "It was such a relief to be clever at last. For years I had had to keep my cleverness cramped and concealed — not because it was dangerous or forbidden, but because it had no useful function in my daily life. In the wrong contexts, cleverness is just an inhibiting clumsiness." But finally moving in academic circles isn't the balm she'd imagined in the years of missing out on using her brain; there is a balance between heart and mind she finds essential.
Hadley is an intimate observer of familial relationships. Absent fathers, replacement fathers, horrifying fathers and barely adequate father figures are everywhere in this novel, but it's motherhood that has the keenest edge throughout. And as Stella ages, rarely leaving Bristol, Hadley brings each era of those late 20th-century decades to vivid life. The '60s raw housing estate full of tree stumps, the '70s commune with bare floors and walls hung with residents' art and the '80s family home complete with "seashells stenciled on the walls, fish-shaped stone soap dishes" — each home mirrors not just a phase of Stella's life, but the greater social and historical reality in which she lives.
Ultimately, this is a beautiful and precisely drawn portrait of an everywoman, both extraordinary and ordinary.
Melanie Cremins writes about books and more at dakimel.blogspot.com.