material things could be altered by the light, or the absence of light, in which you looked at them

Dear Tessa,

I felt as if I was entering this house, too, along with your characters – the old country house where your novel The Past (2015) is set. It is musty, cold, and it needs repairs which none of the four siblings who inhabit the story can really afford. They will spend a last summer there, before putting it on sale. For each of the siblings, the rooms will assume slightly different qualities.

Alice, the middle sister, a 46-year-old failed actress and would-be poet, is impulsive, romantic, self-indulgent, dreamy, and slightly mystical. On an ill-advised impulse, she has invited Kasim, her ex-boyfriend’s 20-year-old son, to spend the summer at her family’s country house. Fran, the youngest sister, is a sensible and practical schoolteacher, married to a carefree musician. She arrives alone with her two children, the 9-year-old tempestuous Ivy, and the frail 6-year-old Arthur. Harriet, the eldest sibling, works with asylum seekers, attempting to purge her bourgeois background. She is taciturn, reclusive and excessively shy: for her, “entering into that high-pitched sociability would be like breaking through a skin.” It was Harriet who looked after the family, when their mother died of cancer and their father left the house. Finally, there is Roland, the only brother, a philosopher and successful public intellectual, adored and spoiled by his three sisters. He brings his third wife Pilar, and the 16-year-old Molly, Roland’s daughter from his first marriage. Pilar, an Argentinian lawyer whom the sisters have yet to meet, is exotic, enticing and elegant, and makes everyone feels a little intimidated.

The novel is structured in three parts, mirroring Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris (1935). The first and third parts are set in the present, when the family gather at their grandparents’ old house in the countryside for their last family vacation together. There, they have one last opportunity to re-enact their childhood, and thus try to overcome their losses. The family house is the space where they love and resent one another, discuss relationship issues and have unexpected identity crises. The central section of the book, on the other hand, is set in 1968, when their mother Jill decides to quit her husband in London, and brings her three children – Harriet, Roland and baby Alice – to her parents, who live in a big house in the countryside.

Yours is a family novel, albeit a slightly different one. It is not so much about the many small ways the past shapes one’s future and makes itself present. In fact, dividing time like this is to stray far away from what the novel really conveys. Although the narration is linear and clear-cut, time here is almost mythical: it is circular, full of resonances, mirrors, running water and moving light. The events do not explain one another, they only resonate, replaying themselves endlessly, shining for a moment and soon disappearing, only to reappear later in a slightly different form.

The story is punctuated by cycles and mythical elements. Loss of innocence is equated with magical transformations: a child has a haircut and turns into a boy, claiming independence from his older sister. Some scenes replay one another in different settings: Jill and Alice give up intellectual aspirations because of foolish infatuations; Jill and Fran marry erratic men; Roland and his grandmother cannot even know they share similar ideas about marriage; Ivy and the Harriet are forced into a small form of innocence loss, from which they try to protect their brothers; Arthur and Roland learn to gain strength from their initial frailty; each of the characters has one or two episodes of seeing someone through another person’s eyes; some of them hear someone’s voice, but not the words; something old is destroyed at the same moment when something new is born. The past is something the siblings make alive when they come to their old home.

Mirrors, water and light are recurring elements, too. The house interior is “a room seen in a mirror” – like the past, envisaged from a distance, but either impenetrable or a place made of glass, a reflection about to be broken into. The past – if you happen to pass through its mirror, you risk being trapped on the other side. Water and light seem to be interchangeable: the trees are silhouettes “filled with liquid light”; the sky is “washed with wet light”, or painted into a “watery sunshine”; the firelight is “licking over” someone’s body; a person bends her head “under the onslaught of water and steam”, while another slips “into the dark pool of herself”; one can see “the current of awareness moving in his face like a current in water”. You manage to expose internal landscapes through subdued ambience descriptions, sudden rain or slight shifts in light. Your writing style is quietly disquieting: evocative, sensuous, but almost self-effacing; at times, subtly humorous. The third person narration moves from one character’s perspective to another, as we ourselves move through time, or through the house.

Like a place out of a fairy tale, Ivy and Arthur discover an abandoned cottage deep in the woods. “The children were aware at once that the cottage smelled awful – not innocently of leaf-rot and minerals like outside, but of something held furtively close, ripening in secret.” There they find the decomposing body of a dead animal, their first contact with death. Ivy, being the oldest sister, wrestles with this new knowledge, while also trying to protect her brother from it. “Partly she was distracting him as an older sister should, saving him from certainty.” She doesn’t say anything to her mother: Ivy wants to keep this secret in all its reality from being cleaned-up and taken over by the grown-ups: “Ivy was suddenly protective of her secret: in all its ugliness, it belonged to her, and she didn’t want the grown-ups taking it over, sorting it out and cleaning it up, not yet.” Ivy’s loss of innocence is also a small disconcerting moment in which the roles of adults and children are reverted: the children had seen what the grown-ups hadn’t; the adults still belonged to “the innocent sunshine”, while the children had lost it; and the children were protecting the adults from this knowledge. This whole sequence is so beautiful: it conveys, in a few sentences full of imagery, what growing-up means – a two-way street, where children and adults protect each other from the knowledge and the reality of something they are about to lose together.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, I felt as if I was entering this house, but could never enter it fully: the rooms kept changing, as the perspectives changed. For Alice, the house is a place seen through the looking glass, and one would have to pass through the mirror to be able to get inside – the reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice will come back here and there, throughout the book. For Roland, the house is the place where the first summer they spent after their mother’s death is forever trapped. “He had not known until then – he was fifteen – how much material things could be altered by the light, or the absence of light, in which you looked at them.” For Harriet, the house is both the place where she was precociously made to form a self, and the place where she later decided to stray from this old self, “undoing the vexed knots which had held her tight”, and finally “backing up against a close, untried door.”

The house is full of different overlapping pasts, and I had to cut through these layers, like a sea-animal parting the water in two. At the same time, there was a strange sense of immobility inside this house, a kind of torpor, seeping through its untouched objects. And, strangely, there was also a sense that it was the house that moved around itself, not me. I was standing still, and it was the house that passed by me, as your characters slowly “rouse it back to life.” As if this moveable house were time itself, and time were this space in motion.

Yours truly,


Mikalojus Ciurlionis. "The Past". 1907.
Mikalojus Ciurlionis. “The Past”. 1907.

“Sophy knew he used these violent words to shock her — and actually to jolt himself, because he was upset. He couldn’t bear anything to hurt Jill. And she was shocked, though she hoped he didn’t noticed it; then she wondered about this idea that women — a certain kind of woman — left their scent on men, so that other men could smell it. All kinds of shame seemed to be wrapped up in it: the shame of leaving your civet trace, or the shame of odorlessness, not leaving one.” ― Tessa Hadley, The Past

“The water was vivid against Ivy’s legs as socks of cold (…). Then she was seized by the sensation of seeing herself from a far distance, from the skinny tops of the fir trees stirring high above the clearing: miniature, alone inside herself, cut off at the knees by water.” ― Tessa Hadley, The Past

“The death of their daughter, their only child, had broken her grandparents’ hearts completely. It had not broken her grandfather’s faith only because it was that kind of faith already, hardened in expectation of the cruellest thing possible.” ― Tessa Hadley, The Past

“Conscience – like something weightless, cobwebby – settled on her out of the air; the old church must be thick with it, after all the centuries of soul-searching. It was always a relief, she found, to accuse yourself and lose all the arguments.” ― Tessa Hadley, The Past

“Chattering with exagerated gaiety, Ivy felt the burden of her responsability for what they had seen. Everything was changed by it, she thought. They couldn’t ever not have seen it, now. It stayed, like a blot in the corner of her vision and darkness leaked from it. She could forget it all right when she was looking forwards, but if she turned too quickly, or forgot to be cautious, then it jolted her all over again with its dirty news, its inadmissible truth.” ― Tessa Hadley, The Past

About the book

  • Vintage, 2016, 361 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 2015
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
  • The book won the Hawthornden Prize (2016).

Opening lines

“Alice was the first to arrive, but she discovered as she stood at the front door that she had forgotten her key. The noise of their taxi receding, like an insect burrowing between the hills, was the only sound at first in the still afternoon, until their ears got used to other sounds; the jostling of water in the stream that ran at the bottom of the garden, a tickle of tiny movements in the hedgerows and grasses.”

2 thoughts on “material things could be altered by the light, or the absence of light, in which you looked at them

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