Wednesday, January 13, 2016
The Past by Tessa Hadley
I haven't done this in a while but I'm having trouble getting started on this review so I'm going to do a self-interview and hope that does the trick. Today, I'll be interviewed by a talking Einstein bobblehead, who tells me "The important thing is not to stop questioning."
Talking Einstein Bobblehead: Tell us about The Past by Tessa Hadley in 50 words or less.
Bookfool: The Past is a character-driven story about 4 siblings who gather at their grandparents' home in an English village for 3 weeks, probably for the last time, and the tensions that develop between them as they share the house and its memories.
TEB: You mention that the book is "character-driven". Is this important?
BF: It's only important because I tend to prefer plot-driven books unless the characterization, writing, and/or storyline is in some way unique or exceptional enough to really draw me in and keep the pages turning.
TEB: And, was The Past special in any of those ways?
BF: Yes, indeed. The characterization is truly impressive, the book grabbed me immediately, and I thought the writing was outstanding.
TEB: What surprised you about the book?
BF: I was surprised by the fact that a book in which so little actually happened and the characters were not particularly likable was such a page-turner, at least for me.
TEB: Was there anything that you disliked about it?
BF: There's a particular storyline involving Ivy, the child of one of the siblings, that is repellent, as in ewww, yucky description. I kept hoping Ivy would stop obsessing about this disgusting thing so I could forget what she saw but it haunted her, so the image was revisited several times in her thoughts and in further scenes. Blecch. And, yet, I have to admit that the reason these particular scenes are so repellent is because of the author's skill. The writing is immersive -- really brilliant, visceral writing.
TEB: Anything else you disliked?
BF: Just the lack of quotation marks. It irritates me when dashes are used instead. Although I grew accustomed to the style, I found it awkward and clunky having to figure out where the dialogue ended and narrative began in a paragraph (or vice versa).
TEB: What else happens that stands out in your mind?
BF: There's an interesting device that the author used, starting with the present day and then going to the past, then back to the present, hence the title. The Past is all about how the characters are rooted in their pasts and whether or not they'll be willing to move forward, past their differences, past their attachments, beyond feelings previously suppressed. The second portion takes the reader back to 1968 to meet their mother, Jill, which I admit was a bit of a jolt but added an important dimension to the story.
TEB: Can you share an excerpt?
BF: Sure. I'll choose a passage at random.
Gulls wheeled against the sun, wailing and slicing the air with wings like blades -- or they rose and fell inconsequentially on the water surface like toy birds, wings folded, glassy gaze averted. Harriet let herself drop down, once, underneath the water: she opened her eyes to see, so that she could remember it later: through the brown-green murk of sand and spinning motes suspended, Pilar's amphibiously kicking legs, bent beams of sunlight. This seemed a place she hadn't visited since she was a child, she had forgotten it; when she burst again into the clamorous day she half-expected to come up into another life.
That's from p. 158 of the ARC, so there could be changes to the final print copy. And, actually, it's from the middle of a paragraph. I didn't realize till now that the paragraphs are so long.
TEB: Any other thoughts?
BF: I always love an English setting, so I think that was one of the facets of the book that made me enjoy it so much. There are houses nearby but a lot of what happens takes place in the countryside. Harriet, Kasim (the son of sibling Alice's partner), and the children of another sibling, Fran, spend a lot of time taking long walks. Roland is the final sibling, who brings his new wife and only daughter. Apart from Harriet, each of the four siblings has brought one or two people along. So, there are plenty of personalities to clash.
That actually reminds me of something I disliked: there was very little harmony and acceptance. Everyone was wrapped up in his or her own wants or needs and the book was not exactly what you could call upbeat in any way. There aren't any characters without baggage, apart from two of the youngsters; most everyone really is unlikable. Again, that speaks to the writer's ability. It takes some marvelous storytelling to overcome the irritation a reader can derive from so much negativity.
TEB: Will you read more by this author?
BF: Yes, highly recommended, especially to those who love a character-driven novel. But, I must warn readers who have a weak stomach, the revolting description is that of a dead, decaying dog. I will not reread the book (I am an occasional rereader) because I don't want to experience that description more than once.
TEB: Well, then. Highly recommended and yet . . .
BF: Yeah, that does sound contradictory, but the bottom line is that the writing is fabulous and it just worked for me.
TEB: Any parting words?
BF: I also love the cover. Do you have any more advice to share?
TEB: "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts!"
BF: Thank you for that. And, thanks for helping me with this review, Einsten Bobblehead.
The Past by Tessa Hadley is a January release from Harper. My thanks to HarperCollins for the opportunity to review.
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