All too human: ‘After the Funeral,’ by Tessa Hadley

Yastika Guru

Reading After the Funeral and Other Stories (Knopf; 240 pages) by Tessa Hadley is like watching a magic show. There is suspense, but it is not the stressful, nauseating sort of a horror movie or domestic drama—it is the sweet suspense of enchantment. The reader has some sense of the hidden techniques being employed, but the final effect is still eye-widening and gasp-inducing. Each story is about a complicated marriage or family and involves divorce or death or infidelity. Although the characters are in wobbly, anxious situations, the prose is never mawkish or emotionally fatty. Instead, it is light, plain, and confident.

The punchline in each of these stories is the past. Stories like “Children at Chess,” “Cecilia Awakened,” and “The Other One” end with a thrust of memory, often from a new perspective. “After the Funeral,” “Coda,” and “The Other One” bloom through a revelation from a history we were not yet privy to. These flashbacks tend to be poignantly quotidian. As described in “The Bunty Club”: “Dreamily, she even half-imagined hearing her mother at work downstairs, a consoling clatter of pans and crockery in the kitchen, water running in the sink, voices rumbling on the radio—as if some substratum of ordinariness were so fundamental that it must always be flowing on steadily somewhere, below all the agitation of change.”

Flashbacks and perspective shifts come together to form a slithering, snaking consciousness. It is startling how immiscible the various perspectives are, how out of touch with each other. Their shifts create intensely disarming conclusions, the most powerful being the collection’s title story. After spending most of the narrative seeing the world through a widowed family—a mother and her two daughters—we are slipped into the point-of-view of the doctor who had an affair with the mother and her older daughter: “Batting aside a bothersome slide show of images—Charlotte’s goose-fleshed, greenish-white limbs, abandoned like something drowned, against pink nylon sheets that had crackled with static—he shifted in his seat and glanced uneasily in the rear-view mirror.”

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Often, the stories capture the painful sensitivity of adolescence as we are made privy to the unguarded minds of children. In “After the Funeral”: “Sometimes the girls woke up to overhear subdued snatches of talk that was not like conversation at all, but warm and sweet and very low, like something bubbling or fermenting, his urging male voice rumbling alongside their mother’s fluting, charming, parrying one, the two voices coiling around each other fluently.” When their widowed mother declares, “I wish I was dead too!” Hadley describes the daughters’ reactions: “Impressed, the sisters exchanged glances…” And in “Cecilia Awakened,” fourteen-year-old Cecilia “seemed to intercept glances of open hostility, as stinging as actual lashes across her flesh, so that walking she flinched and hunched her shoulders, though she knew that wasn’t attractive.” Similarly, in “Mia,” “Alison felt on her skin a moment’s dazzle of devouring looks, hungry for sensation, before their bird curiosity lapsed again.”

There is thoughtful attention in Hadleys’ stories to the ways in which women bend and buckle around the men they love, brilliantly depicting a jaded coexistence of adoration and irritation. In “Funny Little Snake”: “She thought with a flush of outrage how Gil was truly selfish, never taking her needs into consideration; but on the other hand the selfishness of important men was part of their dignity, they had to be selfish in order to get on with their work and get ahead, she understood that. She wouldn’t have wanted a kinder, softer man who wasn’t respected.” In “Coda”: “In her world, if there was shame anywhere in a sex transaction, it always stuck to the woman. When a man was unfaithful, the disgrace of it was somehow with the woman who’d failed to hang on to him. Hadn’t she made a lovely home for him? Wasn’t she keeping herself up? Wasn’t she any good in bed?” In “The Other One”: “Heloise thought that her mother, despite her fierce feminism, actually preferred the company of men, powerful men. Women’s winding approached to one another, all the encouraging and propitiating, made her impatient; she’d rather be up against men’s bullishness, their frank antagonism—she had even enjoyed sparring with Richard.” In “Old Friends”: “he was one of those men who thrust his imperfect body shamelessly, even keenly, in your line of sight, with a winning, childlike, uninhibited consciousness as if he’d never noticed he wasn’t a cherub any longer. … They succumbed to his energy, and his self-love.”

The women in this collection are peculiar. They are performative, edgy, and poised—all in such different ways that they are never simply tropes. Hadley is interested in atypical mother-daughter relationships—mothers who are either ditzy or irresponsible or strange, and their daughters who are equally odd and often opaque. In “Funny Little Snake,” a stepmother decides to take her stepdaughter away from her mother, an explosive personality. In “My Mother’s Wedding,” the daughter says, “That was the way my life was divided between me and my mother. I knew about things, and she was beautiful” and eventually declares a desire to marry her mother’s fiancé. Stories like “Mia” and “Coda” are about the obsessive admiration one woman develops for another. In “The Other One” “Heloise marveled at how calmly Delia talked about herself, not trailing ragged ends of need or display.”

These stories are about how greedily we perceive certain people—in both “Men” and “Dido’s Lament,” in which two exes have a chance encounter after long not seeing each other, the protagonists are frantically curious about the lives of the people they have been separated from but continue to measure themselves against. A protagonist of “Dido’s Lament” thinks: “he had put together everything important, family and work and home, all so that Lynette could get to visit it someday, and see that he’d managed to have a life without her.” In “Men,” the protagonist scans through her estranged sister’s hotel room: “There was nothing in this hotel room anyway to show that Jan wasn’t perfectly happy. Whatever Michelle was looking for, her sister had taken it away with her.”

Hadley’s stories are more interested in thoughts than in feelings. The best part of this preference is the cold-blooded honesty of the thoughts. The final story, “Coda,” opens with the protagonist admitting that she doesn’t want to use her aged mother’s toilet: “I couldn’t help feeling irrationally that if I used it I’d be contaminated with something: with suffering, with old age.” In “Old Friends,” Hadley writes about the couple having an affair: “And then, when Christopher and Sally had been loving each other clandestinely for about eighteen months, Frank died reporting on the war in Syria: which you might have thought, looking at it cynically, must be the sort of thing they had been waiting for.” In “The Other One,” the protagonist describes her mother and brother: “He and Angie were mesmerizing when they exerted their allure, auburn like angels; and then sometimes they were unabashedly ugly, ill-tempered with their pale-lard colouring, blue eyes small with exhaustion, sex-light withdrawn like a favour they were bored with proffering.”

Through this controlled and blunt study of human interiority, Hadley holds a mirror up to her readers without scaring them off. One is somehow implicated and forgiven simultaneously.

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