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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.