Family Drama in the English Countryside: The Past by Tessa Hadley

The Past, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Cape, 2015

The Past, Tessa Hadley, HarperCollins, 2016The Past

Tessa Hadley
January 5 2015

Disclaimer: A review copy was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

The Past opens on four siblings, and their children, gathering at their grandparent’s country home for a three-week holiday. It’s a trip that evokes a lot of strong feelings and memories, as it’s the first time they’ve all been there together in some time, and it may be the last time they go at all. It’s an old house, which requires a lot of upkeep and they’re not sure they have the time or the energy to devote to it anymore.

The narrative of this story is a bit unconventional. Part one begins with the siblings at the cottage in their present day, but a third of the way through the novel it jumps back to “The Past” and revisits an earlier trip they once took there. Hadley introduces the reader to the woman who helped shaped these four into the people they now—their mother. This middle section relays a time when their mother, feeling alone and desperate, ran away with the three eldest children, Roland, Alice, and Harriet, leaving behind a cheating husband and going to stay with her parents at the country house. The reader gets a short taste of what this woman and her style of parenting was like, but for the last part the novel returns to the present day, rejoining the siblings as they decide once and for all what to do with the house.

The heart of this novel is the characters, and all of the family members are quite unique in their own way. Combine that with a limited environment and an extended period of time and some interesting conflicts are bound to arise. A group of people may love each other very much, but when placed in such a situation, drama can’t help but disrupt the peaceful holiday they had planned.

Jumping back in time provides some necessary background for the family and the deeper significance of the house. But it also crowds the novel a bit more than it should have. Due to the scope and the sheer number of players, it’s difficult to connect to some of the characters, despite their prominent role in the story. Fran, the youngest child, never comes across as anything more than a typical, nagging mother, whereas Alice, her sister, is more selfish, more dynamic. The cast felt unbalanced as I found myself wishing for more time with some characters and less time with others.

Harriet was, by far, the most interesting sibling. She was the eldest and easily the most complex, with layers that peel back and reveal more and more as the story goes on. Her odd behaviour immediately sets her apart from the rest of the clan. She arrives at the house first, but she doesn’t wait for her siblings and she also doesn’t let herself in. Instead she goes for a walk by herself and leaves no word as to where she’s going. From her interesting career, to the unlikely bond that develops between her and her brother’s new Latina wife, she was always full of surprises. Every time I felt as though I was getting to know her, she would do or say something unexpected.

The Past turned out to be a bit more domestic than expected.  It wasn’t as intriguing or scandalous as I hoped—despite this family actually having some scandals. Which is not to say it wasn’t captivating in its own way. For those who can’t resist a multi-generational family drama in the English countryside, you’ll easily be drawn into the lives of Roland, Alice, Fran, Harriet, and the rest of the family. It’s a thoughtful, purposeful novel and in the end, I felt as though I needed more time. More time with the family, and more time with the house.

Christa Seeley

Christa Seeley

Books Editor. Maple Flavoured Darth Vader Fangirl.