Resurgent ‘Hampstead novel’ shows it’s not the dying type
09 August, 2019 — By Conrad Landin
‘IT wasn’t an injustice. And yet it undid them all.” These are Christine’s thoughts as she considers her friend Zachary’s death against the backdrop of the refugee crisis unfolding on the TV in her north London living room.
Late in the Day has been hailed as a rare success in the apparently-unfashionable genre of the “Hampstead novel” – though it is mostly set outside of NW3, including Clerkenwell and an episode in a convincing depiction of Glasgow. The characters are prosperous, conscientious and middle class: a type familiar from Tessa Hadley’s previous novels.
Also in line with her repertoire, though, is the fact their identities are rarely secure. Where there is smugness, Hadley has a knack for swiftly shattering it with the interventions of life and death that no amount of creativity or inheritance allows one to fully escape.
Christine had dated Zachary in her youth, but for the decades prior to his death, he was married to her best friend, Lydia. Meanwhile, her own husband, Alexandr, had once been the object of Lydia’s fascination.
Now in middle age, the three remaining friends are thrown into uncomfortable proximity following Zach’s sudden death. Hadley explores the love they have impressed on one another in youth and adulthood, and how quickly this can turn to scars of damage once the veneer of happy families has been disrupted.
With the return of both couples’ daughters, there is a sensitive study too of how the different values of a younger generation can shape attitudes to life and death.
Every aspect of the aftermath is scrutinised. There are meticulous discussions of practicalities, and shifting philosophical preoccupations.
“Something else is taking his place: the whole idea of his death, which is so improbable,” Lydia observes. “He wasn’t the dying type.”
The latter throwaway comment is perhaps not typical of Hadley, but it is emblematic of her stylistic success. Few contemporary writers are able to invest such a cliché with the meaning it deserves. Pondering her own burial in a 1994 essay for the London Review of Books, Jenny Diski suggested the epitaph: “Jenny Diski lies here. But tells the truth over there.”
Hadley’s writing has something in common with the “weird shimmer” Kate Saunders, who praised Diski’s unfaltering “tone of detached irony”, detected in the late writer’s work.
Diski’s writing, while certainly detached, was often firmly grounded in place – and Hadley’s sense of setting is distinct.
She can describe a location – like Zachary and Lydia’s chapel conversion – in painstaking, matter of fact detail and yet still allot it an air of mystery, even liminality. Hadley’s previous three novels evocatively depicted Cardiff, Bristol, rural Devon and a seedy King’s Cross flat, but the action in her novels takes place on another plane altogether: a kind of mezzanine which cuts across the internal thoughts and fears of each character.
There are echoes of Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Mansfield, both of whom feature in courses Hadley teaches at Bath Spa University, where she is a professor of creative writing.
Her writing often includes a scepticism of political activism, or simply active politics; and unlike Diski, who was instinctively suspicious of hierarchy, Hadley has an unfortunate tendency to lose baby with bathwater. In The Past (2016), the hope of May 1968 is dismissed as masculine indulgence, and the characters in Late in the Day are similarly post-idealistic.
But when Christine asks if “our bourgeois sensibility” is drawing to a close, “our privilege and irony is at an end”, it’s clear Hadley’s outlook is more nuanced than cynical apolitical satisfaction.
It’s just as well: she’s created a prime study of the modern condition, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.
• Late in the Day. By Tessa Hadley. Jonathan Cape, £16.99