Tessa Hadley writes fiction in which nothing really extraordinary happens — just the everyday foibles, joys, passions, worries and loves that occur in the lives of regular people like ourselves.
Author of five earlier novels and two story collections, Hadley has set her new novel, "The Past," not far from London in a modest country cottage that is showing its age and has become solely an annual gathering spot for three sisters, a brother and their families. A summer vacation home is not an uncommon situation for contemporary fiction (think Mark Haddon's excellent 2012 novel "The Red House," also with bad weather and no cellphone reception), but Hadley's formidable storytelling talent and compassionate understanding of humanity pull us right into this beautifully told narrative that easily transcends the genre.
The book is organized into three sections: the present, the past and back to the present. We learn much about this family simply from their interactions with one another at what may be their final holiday at this house.
There's Alice, who, against the wishes of others, brought along Kasim, the 20-year-old son of her ex-boyfriend; Harriet, the never married oldest sister whose solitary self-righteousness contributes to her apparent loneliness; Fran, whose musician husband stayed away, as he often has, but whose two young children contribute chaos and cheer, and Roland, the sole brother, who arrived with his 16-year-old daughter, Molly, and his new bride from Argentina, the elegant, secretive and work-driven Pilar.
This novel's success owes much to Hadley's abilities to capture human character and connections so well. ("The newlyweds were at that stage where every exchange between them had a private reference, tender but cloying to observers.")
Early on, we're given hints that some event happened in the past that affected all these siblings so severely it remains a part of their lives — indeed, the title of the novel hints at that — and halfway through the book the reader is rewarded with what occurred to Jill, the late mother of the siblings.
It was a smart decision for Hadley to include the two outsiders, unrelated characters who can stir up the pot, and they certainly do, as Kasim and Molly flirt, fuss, fight and more. Pilar seems to be a mystery to all of Roland's sisters, with the exception of Harriet, who, over the three weeks of their holiday, becomes quite close to the Argentine woman, with surprising and unfortunate results in the end.
And in the end something is realized by the reader that is quite sweet, a quiet fact that reminds us that decisions we make and homes we live in affect our future in ways we'll never know. "The Past" is a memorable novel that continues to resonate well after the reader has turned the last page, and makes us long for the next work of fiction by this outstanding English writer.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Portland, Ore.