Book review: ‘Clever Girl’ by Tessa Hadley

Clever GirlSometimes a character reveals her layers slowly, showing the tiniest glimpse of soul spread thin over many pages. A novel builds and builds, progressing to an explosive end, and we hurry toward it — unable to pause before we know the illustrious End.

Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl fits the first description, certainly, but this is the sort of novel — definitely literary fiction — that enfolds you gradually. There is no dynamic pay-off, no shocking reveal or plot twist. It’s quiet, enveloping, sharply-focused and beautifully written. As with The London Train, Hadley draws us deeply into the lives of her characters — and though we may not love these people or feel endeared to them, exactly, they are alive and memorable and real to us.

Stella was real to me.

From the beginning of Clever Girl to its satisfying end, we span half a century of our narrator’s life. Stella morphs from a young girl preparing to share her single mother with a new husband to an impetuous, lonely teen mother and, later, a middle-aged woman wondering where everything got so twisty. The story opens in 1960s England and progresses almost to present-day — a transition that could have felt clunky and odd in the hands of a less skilled author, but believe me: Hadley is more than up for the task.

What kept me so captivated by Stella, her sons and the strange layers of their lives was absolutely Hadley’s writing. Gripping, detailed and so focused that sometimes it took my breath away, this is not the sort of story you tear through at breakneck speed — or skim halfheartedly with “Survivor” on in the background. To look away from the text for even a moment is to miss some gorgeous, transient moment; and as Stella’s story is revealed slowly in careful insertions throughout the text, it has a very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feel. I loved that.

An older, wiser, more chastened Stella is obviously recalling the details of her youth — and we know things about the fate of characters long before the action is revealed. In that way, Stella functions as our omniscient narrator; even in the brilliant moments, we know darkness is coming. That effect left me both curious and unsettled, and I often hurried through passages so I could finally uncover the fate of these poor people.

And poor they were. Not financially, maybe, but definitely in spirit. Valentine, Stella’s irreverent boyfriend, is a fascinating character; I didn’t guess his secret for a while, but then it was impossible to ignore. He was the typical “bad boy” arriving to both fascinate and horrify Stella and Madeleine, her best friend, and you couldn’t help but wonder what was hiding beneath that sheath of dark and dirty hair. All in good time.

While I didn’t love Stella, I respected her — and everything she’d gone through. She makes some questionable choices, yes, but it wasn’t hard to separate those calls from the overarching hippie-commune-love-fest of the 1960s and ’70s. In time, she grows into a respectable person and mother — even if she seems to need rescuing from various men to finally pull herself together.

If you love literary fiction and character studies, Clever Girl is a fantastic novel that provokes questions of love and purpose through life’s dips and turns. But if you’re a reader who leans more heavily into action-packed plots or prefer a faster pace, I could see Hadley’s novel leaving you a bit cold. For me? Well, I loved it, just as I loved The London Train.

Hadley is a truly gifted author. Honestly, I’m in awe of her skill — and will look forward to reading more of her work.

4 out of 5!

Pub: March 4, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The London Train’ by Tessa Hadley

Paul should be happy. His life is filled with warm days in Wales, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. Though he hasn’t written much in years, the possibility exists that he could again — someday. Sometime. The idyllic country life is a far cry from his upbringing in England, and he likes it that way. It makes me feel . . . at peace, perhaps.

But a call reporting his mother’s death, though not unexpected, sends him writhing from his cocoon. And it’s not long before he receives more news — this time about his eldest daughter, Pia, born during his first marriage. She’s gone missing, her mother says; she hasn’t sent word of where she’s gone, just disappeared into the ether of London. And Paul — her distant, unavailable father — should recover her.

In the second half of Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, we meet Cora — a solitary librarian to Cardiff, Wales, newly separated from her husband and struggling to repair the crumbling facade of her childhood home. After escaping London and her life with Robert, a serious public official, Cora throws herself completely into the aging house. And just as she’s come to grips with her new world, something comes along to change it all over again.

A novel in two parts, we’re not told if or how these people know one another. We’re presented the facts — unchangeable; serene — by an omniscient narrator, someone who puts Paul and Cora’s defects and stunning qualities equally on display. We know Paul is not a capable man; we realize he’s not always a likeable man. But, despite everything, he’s trying. We think he’s trying.

Hadley’s novel has the unique distinction of being both high-brow and accessible. It’s not written with flowery, over-the-top language, but it’s not colloquial or dull, either. Hadley has a way of introducing us to people that we don’t particularly sympathize with but still feel as though we understand. Upon completing The London Train, I can’t honestly say that any of these people could be my best friends . . . but I don’t need them to be. I can read about them and their difficult, messy lives, then move on.

Very introspective, this novel falls into the category where not much actually happens — but so much does. As the story unfurls and reveals more and more about Paul and Cora’s lives, particularly in the past, we’re painted an accurate glimpse of two very interior lives. The novel could have become dry — very, very easily — but, you know? It didn’t. It really didn’t. I started reading on a Friday evening and wound up finishing almost half before my body threatened to pummel me if I didn’t sleep. Hadley’s writing is mesmerizing.

Though it lacked the strong emotional ties I crave to really make a book a favorite, I can certainly see why The London Train was longlisted for the Orange Prize and is generating buzz. The story’s strength, like all good books, lies with the characters. For good or for ill, these were people I really got to know. Without much difficulty, I could probably sketch you a list of their likes and dislikes, pains and triumphs. They’re people who will stay with me, especially Paul. It brings chance encounters to new, romantic and heartbreaking heights.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062011839 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review