The veteran Tessa Hadley’s latest short story collection, After the Funeral, cracks soul specificities open. Hadley likes setting the ordinary against a questionable extraordinary. In My Mother’s Wedding, Janey walks into a lake naked, to snatch her eccentric mother’s fiancé. Janey’s erratic behaviour is mirrored by her mother’s disconcertingly volatile and flowery words – both are addictive, and claustrophobically inescapable.
Hadley’s attack on female attraction gives a well-deserved break to the poor six-pack types (those alleged paragons of male magnetism). In Old Friends, though Christopher is ‘straight and slim…with more hair’, it is ‘ugly Frank’ with ‘his sagging baby-face’ who commands everyone’s attention, making Christopher’s affair with Frank’s wife complicated. Hadley’s quiet dexterity exhibits the ugly truth: though Frank is detestably oblivious to his family, with that confidence of his, he easily outmanoeuvres Christopher – a stinging truth about the nature of allure, exposed by austerely carved characters.
Hadley, whose stories appear almost calculated to charm, is nonetheless imperturbably unmeddling. In Dido’s Lament, the once-married Lynette and Toby clash – ostensibly by chance – while an omniscient narrator unveils the full, contrived scale of their hollow lives. Hadley, instead of developing plots, shows the lingering complexities of halted lives. (And barely leaves hope alive.)
Her minute narratives stall sensuously around ‘mushroom-coloured suits’, ‘Viyella dresses’, and interior design – details relevant to characterisation, though suspiciously l’art pour l’art. She enjoys not having to ‘fasten the end off’ of short stories: a heartbreak, for the more of her, the better for us.
Words: Ágnes Fodor
After the Funeral