Married Love

Married Love
Tessa Hadley
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £14.99

Don't be deceived by the having-it-all flourish of the title. Though most of these stories deal with a bobo existence that is superficially notable for its cosseting insulations, what interests Tessa Hadley is the places where seams rip, exposing unlikely stuffing. These sites of rupture often find their counterparts in physical spaces - uncanny openings that exert a powerful, not entirely benign fascination.

In "Friendly Fire", the story of two female cleaners, one of whom has a son fighting in Afghanistan, the sense of unease coagulates around a blocked sink in an industrial warehouse, gummed up with "a nasty mass, a thick rope of hair and soap and matted insulation" that is pulled free "in a gulp of bad drain smell". In "Because the Night", it is a covered well in a greenhouse, "deep enough to fall into", that acts as an analogue for the concealed currents of boredom, shame and erotic interest experienced by a teenaged girl during an excruciating family party. Elsewhere, a different kind of breach opens up during a dinner between two potential lovers, "one of those tiny twitches in conversation that, unbeknownst to the speaker, tear fissures in the moment, out of which power and pleasure drain".

Home, as viewed by this penetrating gaze, is not safe, or cosy, or dull, but a place of accident and subtle danger, where nothing is as sturdy
as it seems. This is not to say that the stories are over-reliant on disaster. One of the most suspenseful, "Journey Home" (an early version appeared in the NS of 8 August 2011), turns out to be an account of anxiety itself: the way small things can seem like harbingers of larger trouble. Alec, an art historian, is in Venice when he notices that his sister's Facebook relationship status has changed to "single". The "faint consciousness of worry" this shift engenders gathers momentum as he struggles against a succession of delays to return home to Scotland. Put up in a hotel at Disneyland Paris when his connecting flight is delayed by snow, he wonders if "the existence of this non-place made the other one nothing, too, and the paintings nothing. He lost his conviction that things could be themselves and not just copies of other things, and was oppressed by a foggy anxiety, as if a catastrophe had happened somewhere offstage."

Hadley's facility with changes in emotional weather is matched by a knack for aphoristic expression. Three adults, returning to their dead godmother's house, encounter "a species of suburbia that seemed more remote from their present lives than anywhere they ever went on holiday". Even landscapes are rendered impeccably: a risen moon is "a flake of waxy alabaster in a blue sky thin with light".

Inevitably, sex and its complications loom large. In the title story, a 19-year-old studying the violin - tiny, milky-skinned, barrel-chested and terrifyingly emphatic - announces to her family, over breakfast, that she is marrying; the man turns out to be her sexagenarian professor. Their life over the next five or ten years is depicted in a sequence of lurches and luxuriant zooms. As ever, nothing lands quite where one might expect, and the location of loneliness in this busy life is both surprising and affecting.

Amid these uncomfortable erotics, a special attention is paid to female ageing, to the slow diminishment of physical charms. One woman ambiguously regards her elderly mother-in-law as "beautiful in her decay, like something she might have found in the woods round here, a piece of bark splotched with lichen or a twiggy knot of witch's broom". Uncertain of how appealing this is, she adds: "You would have to think very well of yourself to bear it."

The last story here, "Post-production", ends with a Chekhovian trick - a drift away from the main character, a film-maker's widow, and into the indifferent hubbub of the wider world: "the ordinary dirty traffic, the labouring stop-start of her bus journey, the smells of wet wool and hair and trainers, and the motley collection of passengers, mostly not talking to one another, only into their mobile phones". As in Chekhov, there is a sense, in this deliberate understatement, that one is seeing the world as it is, unadorned and unconcerned; a sense, too, that both these writers could slip bonelessly into any one of that motley collection of passengers and draw from them a succession of stories as beguiling and strange as magicians' scarves.

Olivia Laing is the author of "To the River" (Canongate, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama