More than many of her contemporaries, the British writer Tessa Hadley understands that life is full of moments when the past presses up against the present, and when the present transforms the past. Her brilliant new novel, “Late in the Day,’’ explores both with equal urgency. On the opening page Alex and Christine are at home in their flat in London, listening to music on a summer evening, when the phone rings. Christine goes in search of the landline, expecting her mother or her daughter, and finds her old friend Lydia, calling from a hospital. Gradually she understands that Lydia’s husband Zachary — “a striding cheerful giant with torrents of energy” — has dropped dead of a heart attack.
Christine does three things: She calls a cab, locks the door of her studio, and breaks the news to Alex, who has known Zachary since high school. At the hospital, as she and Lydia talk about how to tell Lydia’s daughter, Christine thinks, “In the next hours our perceptions will change over and over in a speeded up evolution, as we adapt to this new torn-off shape of our lives . . . Without Zachary, our lives are thrown into disorder.” The pages that follow explore that disorder for the three remaining adults and for the two daughters: Grace, an artist, and Isabel, a civil servant.
As in her last novel, “The Past,’’ Hadley is masterful at showing her characters over time. The seven chapters of “Late in The Day’’ alternate between the aftermath of Zachary’s death and the history of the friendships; within each chapter the point of view moves effortlessly among the characters and a larger omniscient narrator. We have the pleasure of seeing Christine, Lydia, and Alex as they see themselves, and each other .
The first chapter ends with Christine bringing Lydia home so that she and Alex can take care of their grief-stricken friend. The second chapter opens several decades earlier with the two women sharing a house. Christine, tall and thin, a caricature of a lady scholar, is working on her PhD; Lydia reads incessantly and works in a pub. But Lydia’s real occupation is being in love with Alex, who taught them French at university. She pursues him ardently, persuading his first wife to hire her as a babysitter, and frequenting the pub where he meets his friends, including the wealthy Zachary. Zachary, she insists, is perfect for Christine and the two begin going out together.
In Hadley’s world, as in Shakespeare’s, romantic love is propelled partly by passion, partly by the insights of others, partly by misunderstandings. “If I can’t have Alex,” Lydia claims, “I’m not complete.” But when Christine’s mother remarks that it is Lydia whom Zachary is truly interested in, everything changes. At Zachary and Lydia’s wedding a second crucial misunderstanding occurs. Alex’s wife accuses Christine of pursuing her husband and makes a scene. Alex, for the first time, focuses his peculiar hazel eyes on the tall graduate student.
The four friends are united not only by history and affection but also by their love of art. At least Alex, Christine, and Zachary are. Lydia, who readily admits to a bit of laziness, lets Zachary take care of their life, and hires a nanny to take care of Grace. Even being interested in money, the others joke, is too much work for Lydia. Meanwhile Zachary uses his inheritance to open a gallery in a renovated church in the East End of London; Christine gives up on her PhD and begins, with Zachary’s encouragement, to draw and paint; Alex, after publishing one book of poems, becomes a gifted primary-school teacher. Several of the most deeply mined moments in the novel are made possible by art: a wonderful evening when the two families picnic in the church soon after Zachary buys it; a holiday in Venice.
While the swirling affections and desires of the adults take center stage, the two daughters, Grace and Isabel, deal with Zachary’s death in their own ways. Grace cuts off her hair and keeps bringing boys back to Isabel’s flat. Isabel begins to see a rather stodgy, very intelligent, civil-service colleague. Their relationship proceeds through blunders and misunderstandings — she spills beer over him on their first date; they wait for each other at different cafés — to true feeling.
At the heart of “Late in The Day’’ are ineffable, unanswerable questions: How can we trust our emotions when they’re untrustworthy but all we have? How can we reconcile the changes that time brings with our longing for permanence? How can we coexist with death? In Hadley’s gorgeous, utterly absorbing novel we experience these questions, as her characters do, moving between light and darkness, and back again.
By Tessa Hadley
Harper, 288pp., $26.99
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Margot Livesey is the author of eight novels, most recently “Mercury,’’ and a book of essays, “The Hidden Machinery.’’ She teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.