Author Tessa Hadley would doubtless take issue with novelist L.P. Hartley’s famous description of the past as a foreign country where people do things differently. Her beautiful new novel, “The Past,” is a nuanced reminder that the past, rather than existing in a bubble of nostalgia, is always front and center in the present.
The novel’s premise is simple: Crane family siblings Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland gather at the rural rectory where they lived with their grandparents after their mother’s untimely death. The house, while charming, is succumbing to neglect – yet still holds their shared past within its walls. During their vacation, they must decide it the time has come to sell the house.
Adding to the mix are Fran’s young children, Ivy and Arthur; Kasim, the son of an ex-beau of Alice’s; Roland’s daughter Molly, and Pilar, his sophisticated and intense third wife who has her own secrets.
While this is in many ways a quiet and nuanced novel, just as in life, there are events that jolt. Ivy and Arthur make a shocking discovery in a nearby abandoned cottage.
“Chattering with exaggerated gaiety, Ivy felt the burden of her responsibility for what they’d seen. Everything was changed by it, she thought. They couldn’t ever not have seen it, now. It stayed like a blot in the corner of her vision and darkness leaked from it. She could forget it all right if when she was looking forwards, but if she turned too quickly, or forgot to be cautions, then it jolted her all over again with its dirty news, its inadmissible truth.”
Past life and present life are nearly indistinguishable to the Crane siblings.
“Afterwards, they couldn’t distinguish one holiday at Kington from another. All the walks and picnics and lazy, long sessions of eating and drinking around the dining table blurred together – sunny days and rainy and snowy ones. Which year was it when Molly brought two friends who hardly spoke, except to complain furiously, when they were alone with her about the bathroom and the food? . . . All the Christmases they had spent there looked the same in the photographs: only the hairstyles changed. Slowly they aged, wearing the same paper hats. The babies grew into children, Roland’s wives replaced one another. . . .”
Divided into three parts, two sections titled “The Present” bookend a middle section set in 1968. Tensions erupt. Love blooms. Secrets are kept and divulged. “The Past” is a book that perfectly captures the slow but inevitable accretion of events that define a family.
Hadley’s transcendent prose captures not only the surface of the three-week-long vacation but all that simmers beneath the surface of family life. The sun-drenched countryside can quickly change to a damp, dark and menacing place. Yet, even amid the stress, there is real understanding and affection between the Cranes that is rooted in their ever-present past. This is a masterfully assured and brilliantly written novel that deserves the widest possible readership.
“The Past” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.