By Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape 309pp £16.99)
Clever Girl, Tessa Hadley's seventh book, has its share of sensational aspects. There are no fewer than two murders, a heroine with a rich romantic life (marriage, affairs both straight and lesbian), a foundling child (and two other sons by different partners) and a supposedly dead father back from the grave. But, as in Hadley's previous fiction, what holds the attention is not a dramatic, twisting tale providing sudden revelations but an intimate narrative voice that renders people, places and experiences in vivid detail.
This is a coming-of-age story that takes almost half a century to unfurl, and even at its conclusion shows little sign of any clear arrival. Its plot is suitably saggy and frayed; loose ends abound. These reflect no carelessness on Hadley's part. As her nuanced sentences suggest, she is too diligent and knowing a writer for that. Instead, her mesmeric novel captures life's unpredictable deviations and detours: how people who dominate one phase of our lives vanish for good or reappear briefly later as strangers in all but name; how individual moments somehow accrue over time into an identity and eventually a life.
The narrator is Stella, born in Bristol in the 1950s to a fussy but loving mother and a father who ran off when his daughter was 18 months old. Stella's mother pretends her errant husband is dead, not from 'grief or regret but ... disapproval'. In one sense at least, Stella dedicates herself to emulating his example. Although she will live almost every second in the same city, her imagination is fuelled by images of flight - first from her mother and dull but decent stepfather; later from the families she creates with lovers, friends and eventually a husband.
In her teens, Stella falls under the spell of a precocious, effete rebel, Valentine, who makes her pregnant before flitting obliviously to New York. Stella is taken in by the wife of a schoolmaster before living platonically with another of Valentine's disciples, his besotted English teacher, Fred. She spends some time in a commune, where she has a second child by a genial artist. Finally, she settles down with Mac, an older man whose marriage she played a part in breaking up.
Each stage is defined by Stella's intermittent desperation to escape it. Flight becomes the nearest approximation to freedom that she can manage within the limits of her existence: the narrative of her otherwise often humdrum exterior life (work, child-rearing, friends and family) is punctuated by near-manic episodes of running away. The first time, Stella is a child sneaking out of her grandmother's house to surprise her mother (who unbeknownst to Stella has spent the night with her soon-to-be-second husband):
I was light-headed with sensations of freedom and power ... I had worried sometimes about making the transition into being a grown-up - how did you know when to begin? Now I understood that you stepped out into it, as simply as into a day.
As Stella ages, her life settles into a battle between competing dualities. Her inner life is distinctly Romantic: 'I'm searching all the time, in books and films and paintings, for signs of transcendent meaning ... that I can puzzle over. They excite me and elude me, escape ahead of me as I try to grasp them.' Stella's head, by contrast, belongs to a Victorian realist:
I thought the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life, which we set such store by. The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.
This is Hadley's extraordinary skill as a novelist: to navigate and narrate the fleeting moments in an individual's life when the future crystallises, by choice and circumstance, for good or for bad. Asked by a friend to adopt her baby daughter, Stella 'seemed to hover between possibilities: I might remain a convenient stranger, she might remain someone else's baby, sweet but tedious. Or something different might come about.'
Recalling such moments in her fifties, Stella reveals a healthy respect for what she can and cannot control. Experience has lent her wisdom, even if that wisdom accepts that her quest for meaning will never quite be resolved. In this way, Tessa Hadley provides acute observations about English class, gender and economic relations in the second half of the 20th century, without ever once shoving a social critique in the reader's face. Clever Girl is a remarkable novel by one of this country's finest, if most unassuming talents.
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James Kidd is a freelance arts journalist. He is also Friends Secretary for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association.