Ordinary life, made artful

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Tessa Hadley is an accomplished dissector of family relationships and of the quotidian details of life. Clever Girl, her fifth novel, is no exception. It’s an involving, claustrophobic work, in which Stella – the clever girl – narrates her life from unsettled childhood to secure middle age.

When we first see her, Stella is a precocious 10-year-old living with her mother in a tumbledown 1960s Bristol flat. It’s a happy existence: “that rich slow expansive time”. After her mother remarries, Stella struggles with her stepfather and with life in a newly built house. In reaction, she becomes as brittle as her unloved, concrete-filled home: “I was clumsy, easily distracted, I was ‘always in a dream’. Gerry [the stepfather] dug out the form of this hapless personality for me; out of perversity, defiantly, I felt myself pouring into it and setting hard.”

As a teenager Stella rebels and runs off with a gorgeous neighbour, Valentine. His “Caravaggio cheekbones” and intellectual bravado convince Stella that what she feels for him is more than ordinary love. She reads in Plato “about whole souls divided at birth into two separated halves ... longing for a lost completion.” Valentine, however, dumps the now-pregnant girl and flees to the US.

There’s plenty of family drama (including murder) but Hadley’s strength is in describing what is often left unnoticed. Stella, for example, sees a cache of buttons in a bomb site: “most of them were loose, jumbled chaotically together ... a coral rose, wooden toggles, a diamanté buckle, big yellow bone squares, toggles made of bamboo.”

Over the decades we follow Stella’s peripatetic life: she lives in a boarding school, the flat of a middle-aged gay man, a commune, and finally a large house as she reaches a prosperous middle age. In each place the dreary is brought to vivid life: “a row of soaking tea towels hung along the radiator like trophies”.

The smooth narrative echoes Hadley’s cool and precise prose but the pace with which we hurtle through each phase of Stella’s life affords only a passing encounter with many of the other characters. Nevertheless, this novel intrigues and engages. Hadley reminds us that there is beauty to be found in the everyday, significance in the seemingly inconsequential as well as hope for those who find themselves lost.

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