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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear