Reviewed: Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

A female Quixote.

Tessa Hadley.
Tessa Hadley.

Clever Girl
Tessa Hadley
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £16.99

Tessa Hadley is a clever writer who likes to play with form. Like Amish quilts, her novels are made up of homespun, domestic material, delicately worked over. Then you step back and see the bold structural decisions behind their composition.

In 2011, her Orange Prize-longlisted novel The London Train offered us two 100-page-long stories, linked by theme and a single overlapping character. Now Clever Girl revives a very old genre, the female picaresque – prime examples are Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752). (Lennox provides the epigraph to Clever Girl.)

Our narrator, Stella, born in 1956, grows up dreaming of a less narrow, more enlightened life than the one on offer in workingclass, suburban Bristol. Like Arabella in The Female Quixote, Stella’s early aspirations are romantically shaped by her reading material. Her Beckett-and-Ginsberg-loving teenage boyfriend Valentine seems to offer a ticket to freedom – until he is involved in a homosexual scandal and runs off to the US, leaving Stella disillusioned and pregnant.

And so Stella’s adventures begin, taking her to a commune, a boarding school and the flat of a middle-aged gay man; on the way, she has many jobs, several lovers and three children (two by different fathers, one adopted from a friend). The narrative includes the requisite glimpses of a changing Britain: the effects of drugs and communism, attitudes to homosexuality, industrialism and its scarred landscapes.

When we leave Stella, she is 50. By then, she has attained social respectability and financial success. The title of the book is a reference to promise unfulfilled and the heroine’s canniness in getting on without academic qualifications.

Despite all this, the terms “quixotic” and “picaresque” aren’t quite applicable here – implying, as they do, a satirical, rolling humour that is largely absent from Hadley’s prose. This is problematic. Although Moll Flanders is hardly a quick read, its charm derives from the brisk clip at which Moll recounts her life story (listing, with a wonderfully salty materialism, the amount of linen and plate she owns each time she stumbles on to a new adventure).

Unlike Moll, Stella is sensitive and thoughtful; and, without irony, a whole life compressed into 300 or so pages starts to look squashed. For example, when the father of Stella’s second child gets accidentally stabbed to death, the narrative barely takes a breath. It is a (rather melodramatic) incident that would sit fine in Moll’s comically callous tallying-up of her life but in this straightfaced context it feels rushed.

“Gentle”, “understated”, “elegant”, “mature”: all adjectives employed in praise of Hadley’s careful prose. She is psychologically astute and impressively unafraid to include events without consequence in her narratives. The third-person voice of The London Train was, in many ways, flawless – always perfectly paced, full of delicate observation and resistant to obvious imagery. The drawback of such a smooth surface is that it risks blandness. It also throws any tonal errors into unflattering relief. The first-person voice of Clever Girl lets in overwriting and cliché: “[His smell] made me drunk, it made my knees sag”; “Without him I was exposed, on a lonely pinnacle, afraid of tumbling”; “Proximity to his body . . . licked at me like a flame”; “I’ve burned my boats, I can’t go back”; “There is a little flame burning in him, in spite of himself”; “It’s also a reprieve to be let off that hook and know that you’re simply in your own hands at last.”

In any first-person narrative related retrospectively, decisions have to be made about suspense – because the narrator who is also the protagonist already knows the ending. Hadley’s tactic here is borrowed from Muriel Spark. She trails major plot points before we reach them. Hadley encloses these flash-forwards in parentheses, which function as rhetorical understatement, lending impact to the revelations within.

However, Hadley’s revelations aren’t nearly as devastating as Spark’s. Compare Stella prematurely alerting the reader that she will later have another child – “(My other son’s so different, so complicated)” – with Spark letting slip, on the fourth page of The Girls of Slender Means, that Nicholas Farringdon will sleep with Selina and eventually be killed in Haiti. And because Hadley’s prolepsis is always cordoned off in parentheses and because there is so much of it, it starts to feel a little routine, a little less surprising.

Muriel Spark, without the spark: what Hadley lacks is stage presence. Her diction is good; she projects well; she’s learned her lines perfectly and she never turns upstage. But somehow, she doesn’t command the audience’s attention. With Clever Girl, Hadley remains a writer who is hard to really fault, yet hard to really love.

Claire Lowdon is assistant editor of Areté