Relative truth

Married Love, by Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Cape, £14.99, 240 pages

Be honest. Which of us, however happy our childhood, has not wondered what it would be like to be part of another family. Bohemian rather than strait-laced, perhaps. Sisters rather than brothers. Or vice versa. Anything as long as it’s something else.

Tessa Hadley’s quietly mischievous collection of short stories, Married Love, is permeated by such speculations. A working-class lad is dumbfounded when he spends Christmas in the genteel family home of his girlfriend, a vicar’s daughter. A troubled student insinuates his way into his old teacher’s family to the disgust of her children. In the title story, Lottie, a bluestocking violin student, weds her music professor, old enough to be her grandfather. Her parents are horrified. “Why ever would you want to get married?” asks her mother. “Dad and I have never felt the need.” Which, of course, is the point.

Under the middle-class surfaces that Hadley captures so perfectly, a curiously primitive tribalism is at work. In “In the Country”, married Julia sleeps with her sister-in-law’s new boyfriend during a birthday weekend. The sense of being outsiders together temporarily eclipses all other bonds. She also offers him advice about how to deal with the family. “You should always keep something of yourself back from them. Keep a few secrets ... just in case they accept everything about you.”

In many of the stories, the desire for intimacy sets itself in uneasy opposition with the need to be reserved. Where does fear overcome desire or self-preservation end and emotional cowardice begin? Married Love suggests that more often than not the boundary is blurred. The tragedy for many of Hadley’s characters is that they know their emotional limitations but are temperamentally unable to transcend them. As the narrator of “Pretending” says about a childhood friend: “I couldn’t help being swept along by the idea of someone changing who she was: I knew I wasn’t capable of this, I was just helplessly forever me.”

In a rather more flattering sense, Hadley is a writer who is “helplessly forever her”, slowly revealing a torrent of emotional wisdom beneath her cool, wry prose.

Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival

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