Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

“There was something intolerable in the expectation in that room, strained around Zachary’s absence, which could not be filled.”

Plot summary: Two middle-class married couples are friends. When one of the men dies, their relationships become unbalanced. The thing is, Lydia who was married to the late Zachary actually used to fancy Alex, who is married to Christine. Christine and Zachary used to date as well, until Lydia gave up on unrequitedly liking Alex and got with Zachary for his money. With Zachary now gone, Lydia seduces Alex, Christine finds out and dumps Alex. Lydia and Alex get together and Christine doesn’t want to see them any more. All the while everyone is missing Zachary incapacitatingly, so we don’t know whether the characters consciously meant for any of this to happen.

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[1] My favourite thing about this book is its exceptionally smooth narrative language, which is just very, very comfortable and easy to read, so much so that it probably increased my reading speed. Reading this was like sleeping on a very comfortable bed, or drinking very smooth vodka. There isn’t a single sentence that strikes me as clumsy or awkward, or begging to be rephrased. This is a RARE virtue, especially in contemporary fiction. In fact, I can’t seem to think of any other writer who does this, except for Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf (who aren’t contemporary). Certainly none of the books I’ve reviewed so far!

[2] Smoothness isn’t the only merit though. Sensory descriptions are certainly vivid. Hadley is particularly adept at capturing the way sensory information interacts with emotions. That every physical experience has an emotional impact and is reshaped by some emotional history is a fact she never neglects throughout the book.

  • Her pale skin was blue with shadows, like skimmed milk.”
  • “Christine put out food on the kitchen table, but all anyone wanted was coffee, which they drank until it tasted poisonous.”
  • “The lamplight seemed weak, pouring into the night beyond, which was restless with rain.”
  • “All the women went to bed in the late afternoon and slept deeply, then woke to a honey-coloured evening light, emptiness in the rooms, syrupy birdsong. They were at a loss now that the funeral was over, which had been an end point in their imagination.”
  • “Christine pressed the end of the charcoal on her page, bending over it, breaking it accidentally, making a jagged mark, seeing her drawing through a blur of emotion. — But how ridiculous, Lydia. You’ve made me cry.”

The effect is that the mind-body distinction around which fictional narrative is often structured becomes blurred, leaving the impression that the strong emotions that permeate the narrative overflow to flood the material surface of events.

The moment Christine finds out Lydia and Alex are sleeping together is particularly good example:

“It was as if dark forms crowded suddenly into the room around Christine, recognition was so violent; one stark and ghastly white face showed in the mirror — she didn’t know her own self for a moment.”

[3] This above effect has crucial implications on the plot and characterisation: the distinction between conscious and subconscious decisions and actions is blurred en miroir. This is clever and appropriate for the subject matter.

[4] Hadley does not go into much detail on the Lydia’s and Zachary’s individual streams of consciousness, tending to summarise rather than record. This is a problem: you never really fully empathise with (‘become’) either of them, so their characters remain mysterious and unclear throughout. For a book whose focus pretends to be the interlocking relationships between the four friends, the fact that we don’t get to really understand two of them is disappointing.

[5] The narrative perspective shifts constantly between the four characters, which means you never even get to ‘become’ Christine or Alex for any considerable lengths of time (with the exception of parts where Christine waits anxiously for Alex to return and where she finds out he’s cheating on her, see [6]). The intermittent switching of perspective requires and creates a constant distance between the reader and the overall narrative, so that I never get to feel thoroughly absorbed in the lives of the characters for very long. My reading experience was very much that of a voyeuristic bystander, watching these characters’ lives go to shit, knowing very well that I wasn’t part of the story. 

[5] Hadley’s portrayal of grief is powerful and moving without sounding trite, which is an achievement. It’s too easy for descriptions of grief to end up covered in clichés.

  • “We had fresh bagels with our coffee. He slathered on that special Brittany butter he buys with the salt crystals in it, … Their eyes met, they were horrified by the lost innocence of that breakfast, imagining the reality of his body now.”
  • “He was always so up to date on everything, so full of news. It seemed impossible he didn’t know this latest fact, his own death.”

A slight concern: how plausible is it for multiple characters to have identical thoughts? It could be argued that when Hadley describes the shared stream of consciousness, she means only to portray an atmosphere, but surely the descriptions are too specific (vide supra) to be a generic mood?

[6] Christine’s internal monologues are engrossing and wonderfully honest and humane. She is the most convincingly developed character of the novel, and that’s no coincidence!

  • “Of course, she was devastated. But she floated above that in her mind, observing it wryly. This humiliated her: it was as if she’d been stripped bare in public. And now everyone would have to condemn them and be horrified by what they’d done— Alex and Lydia, … And Christine was bored in advance with all the sympathy she would enlist, and the outrage — she was furious with distaste at their incurring it, those two, … What an unattractively dreary role she, Christine, would have to play — the wronged wife!”
  • “For a moment Christine didn’t recognise the clothes he was wearing, and thought in her craziness that Lydia was buying him things already. Then she realised it wasn’t his clothes that were different: he came flaunting his satisfaction at them, he was vivid and sleep with sex. How horrible!”

[7] Alex’s attraction to Lydia is masterfully foreshadowed early on in the book, with commendable subtlety:

  • “He was full of pity for her but avoided being alone with her in a room — she was too potently present, with her blue-white skin and mask of beauty, in her eternal place in the corner of his sofa.”
  • “When Christine put down her book and fell asleep at his side, with her back turned and knees drawn up to her chest like a child, snoring lightly, he imagined that in their spare room Lydia too was lying awake, and that she was aware of his wakefulness reciprocally, panic and confusion alive in both of them, a muffled violence inside the darkness of their bodies lying still.”

[8] There are clever and insightful observations scattered throughout the narrative, mostly in the form of Christine’s thoughts, such as

  • “Lydia put in her own remarks among the men, and they all deferred to her, but Christine saw that they didn’t quite take what she said seriously — not because they thought it was stupid exactly, but because her appearance blocked their attention, like a dazzle of sunlight in a reflection off glass.”
  • “Just because she was relieved to be free of Lydia and looking forward to seeing Alex, the reality of him would be an affront: he wouldn’t fit into her preparations or even notice them, would arrive burdened with purposes of his own, breaking into the tension of her waiting.”
  • “If he loved her, it was for what she was unconsciously. He didn’t mind her having opinions, but that wasn’t the same thing as his really taking notice of them — as he might do, for instance, if he thoroughly attended to a book which changed his mind.”

And this wonderfully shrewd comment on the nature of sex:

“There was no redemption in the world, only in this: teenagers knew.”

Verdict: there are some relatively serious problems, such as [4] and [5], but the good things are truly exceptional, and I am won over. Would Recommend.

 

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