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Posted on 1 Dec 2020 in Fiction |

TESSA HADLEY Late in the Day. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey

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Tessa Hadley’s latest novel is one to savour as she examines four London lives with subtlety and elegant prose.

In the London of Tess Hadley’s novel, everything inside her protagonists’ houses is cool, well placed and well maintained. It is the world outside that reflects their inner turmoil. Each time someone goes for a walk, opens a window or visits an unrelated household, things become hot, gritty, tainted, dirty, and smelly.

But the cool balance of these households depends on nothing changing.

This quiet novel touches on the eternal and explosive topic of power – both in society and in relationships.

It follows the lives of four people: Alex, Christine, Zachary and Lydia, who have been friends since they met at university.

Thirty years later, Alex and Christine are spending a summer’s evening reading and listening to classical music when they receive a call from Lydia. Her husband, Zach, is dead. He was the one who held the four of them together.

It seems natural for Lydia to move in with Alex and Christine for a while. But instead of loss bringing them closer, old attractions surface, and disappointments within Alex and Christine’s marriage rear their heads. When Lydia returns to her own house, Alex and Lydia rekindle their affair of thirty years ago.

The novel moves back and forth in time and looks at their lives through the lens of power and who holds it. There’s the power given away in marriage:

Neither she [Christine] nor Lydia were conventional in their personalities, they called themselves feminists, yet both had chosen patterns of relationships with men that looked almost like their mothers’ marriages, dependent and sheltered; they lived their secret lives inside the strong shell of their husbands’ worldliness and competence.

Zach had money and could pursue his dream of owning an art gallery; the languid Lydia was looking for an easy life. Christine says to her:

— You can have the whole thing now, if you want it, Lyd, she said. — I mean the money and the beautiful houses and the life of leisure and everything you were selling so hard to me.

There is the power that comes from the differing status of work and creative pursuits for men and women: Alex is admired for being a poet, even though he doesn’t write anymore. He is the underperformer, but he is the prize. Christine’s talent as an artist is sidelined by her husband; he has to be told she is a successful painter:

Alex looked startled, before a shutter fell across his expression, across some secret. It took him aback, Zachary saw, to have Christine’s work invoked in the same scale as anything he, Alex, may have done. Zachary was startled too. He hadn’t known that Alex didn’t take his wife’s work quite seriously: didn’t in their horrible old schoolboy phrase, really rate it.

Christine and Lydia recall how, when they were young women, they didn’t feel that they had choices in their lives: men chose them, and they relied on their looks to get what they wanted.

When Alex leaves Christine, her emotional journey is authentic and gratifying to read. She is devastated at first, but after some time:

The cruel truth was, Christine thought, that when she got past the pain and humiliation of their parting, she had no more use for Alex.

Aside from the story and the dynamics of the relationships it describes, read this for Tessa Hadley’s writing at a sentence level – nuanced, lyrical and elegant. It is so pleasurable to follow along the characters’ thoughts and digressions without the need to push through fast-paced plot lines or to find another body buried in the woods. Savour the subtlety of Tessa Hadley’s writing, and her skill in bringing out all the gradations of four middle-aged lives in contemporary London.

Tessa Hadley Late in the Day Vintage 2020 PB 288pp $19.99

Linda Godfrey is a poet, editor and teacher. She lives on the south coast of New South Wales.

You can buy Late in the Day from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.