Reviewed: Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

A female Quixote.

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

Tessa Hadley.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt