For all her virtues, Hadley's Late in the Day suffers from an excessive timidityby Freya Johnston / July 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
Like her earlier novel The Past (2015), Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day narrates the fortunes of a quartet of middle-class bed-hoppers; this group is older but no wiser than its predecessor. Other people hover at the edges of the two novels; however, the foursome is the basic unit at the heart of both works, whether it’s two couples (Late in the Day) or four siblings (The Past). Sexual infidelity may be the order of the day, but more attention is paid to the sheets, towels, jewellery and discarded garments than to what anyone might be getting up to in bed.
The Past has a first section devoted to the present, a second section that goes back in time, and a final section that returns to the present. Late in the Day switches freely back and forth across a few decades, encompassing the period in which one member of the quartet, Zachary, was still alive as well as the aftermath of his sudden death. Most people in this universe, whatever they do and however ugly things become, consider themselves benign, intelligent, complex and progressive. People learn to cope with loss, inflicting fresh damage in the process.
Alice, one of the siblings in The Past, tries to re-animate the dead by reading aloud some letters from her brother to their late mother without his permission. At the level of plot, she is endeavouring to do what the novelist, rather than the character, is free to undertake: the mother that Alice has lost forever is magically restored to us readers as a speaking, living being when the middle section of the book zips backwards and tells the story of a previous generation. These structural games show us a writer who enjoys her capacity to manipulate history while dwelling on the frustrated attempts of her characters to do the same.
Philip Larkin, a novelist as well as a poet, wrote to Monica Jones in 1953: “I do love the past. Anything more than 20 years back begins to breathe a luminous fascination for me: it starts my imagination working. Why? Because it is past, I suppose, & leaves my feelings free to get to work on it.”
Like a lexicographer for whom dead languages are the best because they can no longer…