A consummate storyteller, equally at home writing novels and short stories, Tessa Hadley possesses a brilliance that is hard to overstate. It’s a pleasure to welcome “After the Funeral,” her 12th book in just over 20 years, which is exactly as one hoped it would be: impeccably literary, emotionally satisfying, yet unexpectedly unsettling. She is a writer who reaches back to the 19th century in style, but never loses sight of our contemporary moment, an “age of restless globalism and smartphones.” Harkening to a range of contemporaries (Henry James, Muriel Spark, and Elizabeth Bowen as well as Zadie Smith and Alice Munro), Hadley always delivers fiction that cuts to the quick. “We have to wait,” a mother and wife tells her lover who happens to be her husband’s best friend. Hadley knows precisely when to concentrate on holding patterns. She fixes us too as her captive audience, certain that she will bind us to characters who will upend their lives and our hearts in the process.
It could sound like a slight to be called dependably brilliant, but unquestionably, that’s what she is. She writes with an unrushed assurance and confidence that breeds comfort — a description that might be seen as backhanded praise in a literary cultural climate that thrives on experimentation, abrasion, and challenge. Comfort is coded as simple because we’ve become trained to feel that contemporary fiction should work as an unfinished puzzle.
And yet why is it too much to expect that a writer should equally balance plot, setting, and character? With vision and tact that could be initially mistaken for aloof restraint, Hadley builds her fictional worlds where people (some whose only “passionate feelings were for dogs and property”) wander gardens with drinks in hand, “intimately unspeaking.” Her settings are unquestionably British and range from the mid-20th century to the present. She focuses on a society rooted in tradition and manners that can no longer avoid conflict. Grounded by that tension, she strips away this veneer of reserve. Her superb composition mirrors an ongoing break from society’s devotion to respectability, a mold that’s remade and broken again and again as generations repeatedly learn that “[i]t really was better to be free. Or if it wasn’t better, then it was necessary.”
In her novels, she makes space for pacing to simmer. Her most recent novels (“Free Love,” “Late in the Day,” and “The Past”) showcase her ability to survey the intricacies of interpersonal dynamics suppressed over decades before an incident sparks an upwelling of change. Infidelity, stunted ambition, and an ache for liberation are just some of the secrets contained by the walls of gated gardens and houses in her work. Her portraits of older women sloughing off social expectations are courageous in their unfettered pursuit of independence. Hadley excels at creating moody architecture that echoes the foundation-shaking lives of her characters.
But in her short stories, there’s less space to tone and then flex those literary muscles. It is essential to be nimble. While her novels are exquisite, knitted with plot and deep character development as well as a keen sense of space, her short stories lose nothing of that depth in their brevity. Hadley’s stories flicker vividly as powerful vignettes that compress personal histories, offering the reader entry into a brief period of time in which the characters upend perceptions. In this collection, a former couple finds themselves reconnecting over drinks after literally running into one another on the streets of London, a teenage daughter grows disenchanted with her parents while on an Italian holiday, two estranged sisters cross paths in a hotel, an enchanting fellow dinner party guest holds a decades-long secret about the accidental death of a woman’s father, a teenage caterer offers advice and encouragement to her impossibly chic client, and a bohemian wedding celebration culminates with a twist. A throwaway comment — “I’m curious to see where you’ve ended up” — sums up the manner in which Hadley captures events that delineate time for her characters as before and after.
Again and again, throughout the book, accidents make room for new beginnings — some welcome and some not. Hadley is drawn to the ways in which some people fall prey to inertia and others invite a new outlook regardless of the cost. “Are we escaping?” a young girl named Robyn asks her stepmother, Valerie, as a custody drop-off leads to an “adventure.” Hadley latches onto the ways in which we assume a common shorthand with one another. The irritation of minding an awkward child leads to attachment in the face of what’s clearly neglect. But is Valerie prompted to protect Robyn out of concern or is it her fear of a marriage with a palpable expiration date? Motivations and emotions muddle in these short stories, where so often “the coloured lights from the shops wheeled slowly across their faces, revealing themselves as strangers to one another.” Eyes, reflections, and gazes offer glimpses into the truth behind artifice, a trope Hadley deploys throughout the book. Speaking about a translation of “Madame Bovary,” but in fact encapsulating Hadley’s mission: “Nothing could spoil the ferocious pure aim of the words, right at the heart of reality.” In a book marked by innocence and experience, Hadley’s stories steer toward unflinching truths.
AFTER THE FUNERAL AND OTHER STORIES
By Tessa Hadley
Knopf, 240 pages, $28
Lauren LeBlanc is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her Substack newsletter is https://laurenleblanc.substack.com/.