By Tessa Hadley
HarperCollins. 256 pp. $25.99
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Reviewed by Katie Haegele
Clever Girl is a novel about a girl who grows up to be a woman. As far as boilerplate descriptions go, there's not much more to say about it than that.
But British writer Tessa Hadley, author of four prize-winning novels, opens up the mysteries in each moment so expertly that her book reminds us of the way in which one person's story does, in some sense, contain the whole world.
We meet Stella when she's about 8, living in a spartan Bristol flat with her mother in the 1950s. Stella gets the bed, and her mother sleeps on the couch. When Stella was a baby, her father abandoned the family, and by the time she's old enough to wonder about him, her mother tells her that he died.
She goes on to do well in school (she's a "clever girl"), but she's also restless and passionate and often at odds with her stoic, get-on-with-it Mum. The girl grows up to make a life for herself, and it's filled, as all of ours are, with tragedies and surprises and periods of boredom, bad jobs and interesting ones, long walks and self-doubt and decisions about haircuts.
The chapters flow into one another - in fact, sometimes the point where one ends and the next begins seems to have been chosen nearly at random - and yet each could be excised and read as a distinct story. Indeed, two of them were first published as pieces of short fiction in the New Yorker.
We don't doubt that this is fiction, as opposed to memoir dressed up as a novel, but these 10 chapter-tales - of the time when Stella at age 10 left home without permission and took the bus to the horse stables where she had her weekly riding lesson; or the time when a little boy she knew was killed violently - all feel very "real." They have what writer Natalie Goldberg calls the cut of truth, and the cut goes deep. Hadley's incisiveness flays everyday life to display the underground motivations of ordinary people as surely as if she could read their minds.
Clever Girl has a larger resonance because of its placement in time; Stella's life unfolds in such a way that her story is, in a way, also the story of England in the second half of the 20th century. As a child in the early '60s, Stella passes "bomb sites" on her way to school: Shells of family homes and even lone walls, with their wallpaper still clearly visible, litter the suburban landscape. By the time she's a teenager, it's the '70s and she finds herself draping colorful scarves over lamps and living in a commune.
This history-book effect is heightened by the manner of Stella's narration, which is detached and self-aware. She sees now that some former attitude was silly, perhaps, or she remembers that she loved some particular boy, but it's as though she's looking at his picture now and finds she can't stir much of the old feeling anymore. This gives the novel an unusual tone, less like prose and more like embedded reporting.
And yet Hadley's voluptuous language gives every little thing an immediacy. On an evening out at a restaurant: "Night falls while we are eating and the darkness outside presses greedily against the glass; an autumn moon swims up over the water, dowager-stately, trailing clouds like scarves, looming over its own reflection." She has a poet's gift for showing us the most mundane moments of our own lives as though for the first time, and that talent is used to its most vivid and appealing effect in the scenes from Stella's childhood. The novel loses some of its magic when the girl grows up and begins having her own babies, her own worldly problems.
Still, all through Stella's life she makes startling, wonderful observations. On the topic of her cleverness - and the place where it intersects with her femaleness - her insights are clear-eyed and poignant. "For years I had had to keep my cleverness cramped and concealed - not because it was dangerous or forbidden, but because it had no useful function in my daily life. In the wrong contexts, cleverness is just an inhibiting clumsiness."
In fact, it's tempting to construct a review of this book entirely out of quotations from it. Like Joyce at his most coherent and exuberant, each of Hadley's sentences bristles with life, and every moment has significance. When Stella describes her intense love of learning, she could be describing what it feels like to read about it:
"When I lifted my head from my absorption - roused to a pitch of excitement, breathless and dizzy, because I'd been reading Oedipus the King or Adonais or Donne's Holy Sonnets - I couldn't believe that everything was going on unchanged around me in that quiet library, so muted and still that I could hear the pages turning and biros scribbling. In winter the daylight would even have drained away behind the windows without my noticing, and then I felt a niggling unease as if I'd missed something - although all I could have missed was my ordinary life with its prosaic clock-time, trundling from hour to hour."