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Her Proper Duties

Tessa Hadley: Helen Simpson

5 January 2006
Constitutional 
by Helen Simpson.
Cape, 144 pp., £14.99, December 2005, 0 224 07794 5
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... Parenthood happens in sections. The son’s Bildungsroman is the mother’s series of short stories: no sooner has he stopped being the free woman’s dilemma (to reproduce or not to reproduce) than he’s her fat sucking baby; then he’s a needy toddler, then a child bonding and fighting with siblings, then a boy thinking for himself, drawing away from closeness ...

Uninfatuated

Tessa Hadley: Dan Jacobson

20 October 2005
All for Love 
by Dan Jacobson.
Hamish Hamilton, 262 pp., £16.99, February 2005, 0 241 14273 3
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... If anthropology is obsessed with anything,’ Clifford Geertz says, ‘it is with how much difference difference makes.’ The same could be said of the novel. And novelists’ curiosity, like anthropologists’, aims not to solve or explain the puzzle of lives lived, but to seize and transcribe it. In his new book, All for Love, Dan Jacobson captures a story from late 19th-century European history with an anthropologist’s eye for detail ...

Self-Contained

Tessa Hadley: Richler’s happy families

3 February 2005
Feed My Dear Dogs 
by Emma Richler.
Fourth Estate, 502 pp., £17.99, January 2005, 0 00 718985 0
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... We’re encouraged by the Romantics and the Freudians to think that childhood is when we are most ‘natural’ and least broken-in to cultural norms. However, in childhood we are also most intensely subject to the familial culture which surrounds us; the world can be interpreted only in the language and according to the value system we are given by parents and relatives and at school ...

Tear in the Curtain

Tessa Hadley: Deborah Eisenberg

17 August 2006
Twilight of the Superheroes 
by Deborah Eisenberg.
Picador, 225 pp., £14.99, July 2006, 9780330444590
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... Words at first fail us, when events are too extreme to be caught in subtle nets. Literary language reaches for outrage and finds hollowed-out forms; straining to be adequate to horror, it is all too easy to sound schmaltzy, or sanctimonious, or quivery with frisson. So the title story of Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection approaches its subject with reticence ...

Exotic to whom?

Tessa Hadley: Kiran Desai

5 October 2006
The Inheritance of Loss 
by Kiran Desai.
Hamish Hamilton, 324 pp., £16.99, August 2006, 0 241 14348 9
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... In The Inheritance of Loss, her second novel, Kiran Desai addresses herself to an Indian culture in which globalisation isn’t imagined but experienced, whether in exile abroad or as a result of painful social and cultural displacements within the country itself. This makes the novel sound rather gloomily earnest, but Desai’s scepticism and fearfulness are expressed as a dark exuberance: she can’t help relishing the textures of the fragmentation she describes ...

Red Flowers, at a Wedding?

Tessa Hadley: Claire Keegan

24 January 2008
Walk the Blue Fields 
by Claire Keegan.
Faber, 163 pp., £10.99, May 2007, 978 0 571 23306 9
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... In the title story of Claire Keegan’s second collection, Walk the Blue Fields, a priest is officiating at a wedding in rural Ireland: the bride is late, the organist has to play the Bach toccata twice, ‘a thrill of doubt’ is ‘spreading through the pews’. She turns up eventually, and the ceremony goes off all right, but an intimation of trouble has been set reverberating in the reader from the very first sentence: ‘Earlier, the women came with flowers, each one a deeper shade of red ...

Someone Else’s Dog

Tessa Hadley: Per Petterson

18 November 2010
I Curse the River of Time 
by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born.
Harvill Secker, 233 pp., £12.99, July 2010, 978 1 84655 301 1
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... The Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s best-known novel, Out Stealing Horses (2005), won praise and prizes, and was an international bestseller. It opens with Trond, a man in his sixties who has retreated to longed for solitude in the woods, encountering another man late at night outside his house – the second man is worried because his dog keeps running off (there are wolves in the forest ...

Thank God for Betty

Tessa Hadley: Jane Gardam

11 March 2010
The Man in the Wooden Hat 
by Jane Gardam.
Chatto, 213 pp., £14.99, September 2009, 978 0 7011 7798 0
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... The novel at any given moment has a special relationship with the recent past: worlds contiguous to its own, at the farther reaches of living memory, not yet floated off into history. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and William Trevor’s Love and Summer address themselves with urgency to 1950s Ireland, not out of nostalgia, but because something needs to be understood, for the record, in the relationship between those days and the way we live now ...

Lost Daughters

Tessa Hadley: Kate Atkinson’s latest

23 September 2004
Case Histories: A Novel 
by Kate Atkinson.
Doubleday, 304 pp., £16.99, September 2004, 0 385 60799 7
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... The world of Kate Atkinson’s novels is distinctive. This isn’t because it’s confined to a particular place (Behind the Scenes at the Museum, 1995, her first novel, was set in York, her others in ‘Arden’, Dundee and Cambridge), although geography is important, and she is precise about history, socio-economics, climate, architecture and even street-plans ...

Frayed Edges

Tessa Hadley: Pat Barker

19 November 2015
Noonday 
by Pat Barker.
Hamish Hamilton, 272 pp., £18.99, August 2015, 978 0 241 14606 4
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... Pat Barker​ has written about war, mostly the First World War, again and again. In her new novel, Noonday, the last book in a trilogy, she takes characters forged in the first war, in Life Class (2007) and Toby’s Room (2012), on into the second – or into the second phase of one long conflict. They are middle-aged in the London Blitz. Why the preoccupation? The men and women who lived through those wars, or died in them, wrote with devastating eloquence: what more is there to say, that Ford and Brittain and Owen and Remarque and all the other chroniclers of both conflicts haven’t said already? Shouldn’t we, out of respect, leave them the last word? The answer could be a cynical one – that Barker found an audience with her first trilogy, Regeneration, and saw no reason not to stick with it ...

Just like Rupert Brooke

Tessa Hadley: 1960s Oxford

5 April 2012
The Horseman’s Word: A Memoir 
by Roger Garfitt.
Cape, 378 pp., £18.99, April 2011, 978 0 224 08986 9
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... There’s a fascinating anthropological study to be written about Oxford undergraduates of the 1960s – or perhaps this book is it. Roger Garfitt in his daffodil-yellow pinstripe suit and silver-topped cane – mingling with the other ‘heads’, boiling up asthma drugs for a hit, talking of samsara and Kropotkin – seems a type as exotic as an Elizabethan dandy: We would split an amp of methedrine between us, sliding the needle just under the skin in a procedure known as skinpopping … sometimes it seemed to me that the drugs were almost irrelevant and what mattered was the expeditionary instinct that had Bryn and me angling our shoulders into the existential wind or Paul and me reconstituting ourselves around the thin spills of Old Holborn we smoked in liquorice papers, the sweetness offsetting the dark tobacco and the two together anchoring us after the night of non-being ...

The Runaways

Tessa Hadley: Michael Ondaatje

8 November 2018
Warlight 
by Michael Ondaatje.
Cape, 299 pp., £16.99, June 2018, 978 1 78733 071 9
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... If you took​ only the subject matter of Michael Ondaatje’s novels into account, you would expect him to be an austere and even punishing writer. He chooses the darkest material, chronicles passages of life that would test the most resilient cheerfulness. Coming through Slaughter (1976) is loosely based on the tragic life of the jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden, who died in an asylum in New Orleans ...

I scribble, you write

Tessa Hadley: Women Reading

26 September 2013
The Woman Reader 
by Belinda Jack.
Yale, 330 pp., £9.99, August 2013, 978 0 300 19720 4
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Curious Subjects 
by Hilary Schor.
Oxford, 271 pp., £41.99, January 2013, 978 0 19 992809 5
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... Is there such a thing as ‘the woman reader’ – as a category, that is, suitable for study? ‘Readers’ constitute a real category, and ‘women’ do. But Belinda Jack believes that reading women are a sisterhood under the fancy dress. For her ‘history of women’s reading’ she has assembled potted biographies of women readers and writers through the ages ...

Faithful in the Dusk

Adam Mars-Jones: Tessa Hadley

15 August 2019
Late in the Day 
by Tessa Hadley.
Cape, 281 pp., £16.99, February 2019, 978 1 78733 111 2
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... The autumnal title​ of Tessa Hadley’s new novel, almost in the resigned mode of Barbara Pym, is both truthful and deceptive. Relationships of love and friendship with deep roots in the past are thoughtfully examined, but the occasion is a drastic severing, placed on such an early page as to be exempt from any embargo on the revelation of plot ...

An Attic Full of Sermons

Tessa Hadley: Marilynne Robinson

21 April 2005
Gilead 
by Marilynne Robinson.
Virago, 282 pp., £14.99, April 2005, 1 84408 147 8
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... In 1980, when she was in her late thirties, Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping. Her way of seeing things seemed to have sprung from nowhere and was like no one else’s. The novel won awards, high praise from critics, and the devotion of readers, and it has not been forgotten: its fame has spread in a slow aftershock, passed on by word of mouth, cropping up on lists of the best contemporary novels ...

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