The domestic drama is a shapeshifter that takes many forms, but one of its most popular literary incarnations is the family-reunion story. Often the story takes a humorous tone: Think Maggie Shipstead’s comic rendition of a wedding in Seating Arrangements or the journey of Emma Straub’s Mallorca-bound relatives in The Vacationers.
British author Tessa Hadley takes a different path in The Past, her sixth novel (she’s also the author of two story collections). The Past is not bereft of humor, but it’s an elegy not a satire, brimming with nostalgia and gentle melancholy about a way of life that’s not only ebbing away for its characters but also for the U.K. as a whole. But though it’s a decidedly British novel — the family in question has strayed from its deep Anglican roots — The Past is universal in its appeal and its intuitive ways of revealing how human nature, even our own, can surprise us.
For the four adult siblings returning for a final holiday at their grandparents’ old home in Somerset, an adjustment is required (too many updates are needed, and nobody wants to spend the money, even if they have it). Their hectic, busy lives will wind to a crawl at the genteel, crumbling country house. Forget WiFi: There isn’t even decent cell phone service unless you trudge to the middle of a nearby field. Modern life is a distant marvel — and something almost everyone is relieved to have escaped temporarily.
The eldest, capable, unfussy Harriet, arrives first, parks her car and promptly disappears on a hike — at least that’s what her sister Alice assumes. Pretty and dramatic and maybe just a bit frivolous, Alice comes with Kasim, a university student who’s the son of an ex; she invited him on the spur of the moment and is regretting her decision (Kasim, for his part, is already a bit sulky). Fran, the youngest of the clan, arrives next, irate that her musician husband has begged off at the last minute and is stuck with her two young children, odd little Ivy and her stoic brother Arthur.
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So here they are, and the house awaits them. Entering requires a gathering of faculties. Hadley has a terrific sense for the triumph of affection and nostalgia over reality: Fran and Alice hesitate at the front door, “preparing themselves, recognising what they had forgotten while they were away from it — the under-earth smell of imprisoned air, something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.”
Readers too should prepare themselves as well — for the beautiful cadences of Hadley’s descriptive, lyrical prose. The Past is not a swiftly paced novel (though you would never, ever say it dragged). Luxuriating in Hadley’s language in recreating this ancient place is part of the novel’s charm. When Alice shows Kasim around the property, you long to see it, too: “She took him into the churchyard through a keyhole gap in a stone wall in the back garden. Her grandfather had been the minister here. The house and the church stood together on the rim of a bowl of air scooped deep between the surrounding hills, and buzzards floated on thermals in the air below them. The ancient stubby tower of the church, blind without windows, seemed sunk in the red earth: the nave was disproportionately all window by contrast, and the clear old quavering glass made its stone walls appear weightless.”
Eventually, the final sibling shows up: much doted-on brother Roland, with his teenage daughter Molly and third wife Pilar in tow (Roland’s sisters doubt that the self-possessed, practical Pilar, originally from Argentina, has the right mindset for such a vacation). The plan is for everyone to spend three weeks in bucolic languor, reminiscing about the past — particularly their mother Jill, who died when they were teenagers. But people being the way they are — being the way we are, actually — complications arise.
Attractions stir and frictions bubble up, and Hadley reminds us that pastoral beauty often hides horrors and mysteries when the children make a gruesome discovery in a nearby cottage. The author also disorients us with a section set in the past, upending some of what we have assumed about this family (Hadley writes in the acknowledgements that she has borrowed the novel’s structure from Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris).
But The Past isn’t about trickery; it’s hopeful and bittersweet, written with a deep understanding of nuance, family bonds and how our histories never leave us (even if we do sell the old house). Hadley’s publisher Harper hopes this novel will push her more firmly into the American literary spotlight. After reading The Past, we can only hope so, too.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.