Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley: Painting on a small canvas

Cover imageThis is the first Tessa Hadley novel I’ve read in some time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy her writing but she sets her books in a world that can feel a little too small  for me. It was clear from its premise that the same would be true of Late in the Day but I found it an appealing idea. It’s about a group of late middle-aged friends whose lives are blown apart and put back together in a very different way after one of them dies suddenly.

Alex and Christine are listening to music one summer’s evening – he deeply immersed, she not entirely sure what she’s listening to but reluctant to give him the upper hand by asking what it is – when their peace is disturbed by the sound of the phone. It’s Lydia calling from the hospital to say that Zachery has dropped dead at his gallery. Christine rushes to help her, inviting her home to stay with them. These two have been friends since school just as Alex and Zachery have. Lydia had conceived a passion for Alex who taught French to both her and Christine at university but it was Zachery who she married after Christine and Alex got together. Christine and Zachery had also briefly been lovers. The two couples have remained close friends: their daughters becoming confidantes, Zachery showing Christine’s paintings at his gallery, sharing holidays, dinners and conversation over decades. Now the warm, open and loving centre around which they had arranged themselves has been removed stripping away the compromise and comfort of their lives and relationships. What ensues is not entirely surprising, yet it results in both the upending of what seemed immutable and the building of new lives.

Late in the Day tackles themes of ageing and marriage through four friends whose lives are intricately and closely interwoven, exploring gender roles within two apparently very different relationships. Both Lydia and Christine think of themselves as feminists and yet Lydia seems incapable of functioning without a man while Christine kicks against Alex’s innate need to be the superior partner. As ever, Hadley’s writing is quietly accomplished, intelligent and perceptive. The scenes immediately after Zachery’s death expertly convey the feeling of aching grief, shock and dislocation of sudden loss but there’s something a little old-fashioned about her work. It reminds me of Margaret Drabble’s Hampstead novels which is perhaps why I’m often in two minds as to whether to read one or not. That said, I enjoyed this latest offering with its hope of change and new beginnings emerging from the pain of grief and loss.

25 thoughts on “Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley: Painting on a small canvas”

  1. The only Hadley I’ve read was her previous novel, The Past. Reviews kept telling me that it was something special, but although I found it readable I wasn’t convinced. I have this one at hold from the library, however, on the grounds that it was probably me that was inadequate rather than the book and that I should try again.

    1. I’ve read several and had all but given up but I liked the sound of this one. It’s well crafted but I do think her work fits into the Hampstead novel niche a little to comfortably for me.

  2. I think I’m too young for the book’s topic, although the same could be said about Margaret Drabble’s The middle ground, which I did enjoy. What do you mean by “Hampstead novel niche”?

    1. If you enjoyed Margaret Drabble’s writing I think you’d like Tess Hadley’s novels, although I think this one might appeal more to someone in late middle age. The ‘Hampstead novel’ is shorthand for a particular kind of English novel set amongst the upper middle-classes who are often quite caught up in themselves and their realtionships with each other. Hampstead was the province of that class when it was coined although I suspect these days it would be named after another area of London, property prices having taken it up a notch or three.

      1. Thanks for the explanation. Perhaps then Elisabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart would also fit there, although it may have been written before Hampstead gave rise to “Hampstead niche” (1938). Interesting label, in any case.

  3. I often like novels with a small canvas. However this particular story does sound a bit old fashioned too. For me, a writer needs to be very good to make this kind of story interesting. Otherwise it becomes to much like so many other similar novels.

  4. I like the sound of this, Susan – I am increasingly finding that I am enjoying ‘small canvas novels’ as I get older. I’ll look forward to giving it a go some time.

      1. Thanks for the link, Liz. I think you’d enjoy this is you’re happy with a small canvas. It’s beautifully done both in terms of the writing and the characters. It’s also an appealing set-up for those of us of a certain age!

    1. Funnily enough it was the premise which appealed to me otherwise I think I might not have got around to it. I’m sure whatever you have in your pile will be nicely turned out. She’s a very skilful writer.

  5. The only one of her books which I’ve read is The London Train and I loved it, but I haven’t yet made it back to her work. I think I understand what you mean about the quality of it. But I do also love those Drabble novels. For me, it’s a matter of reading them amongst a variety of other kinds of stories, then the quietness soothes rather than frustrates. (But, then, reading them with books which are too busy, in contrast, sometimes has the opposite effect.) Isn’t that often the way with books though? Finding the right combinations and surrounding circumstances? Or, are there some (books/authors)( which simply suit you in any/every mood?

    1. Ah, I think if you love Drabble Hadley’s novels would be right up your alley. I think it’s more that she deals with a particular section of society with out much recourse to the outside world that I find a little offputting. I know what you mean about mood but there are some writers such as Helen Dunmore who will always transcend that for me.

      1. I”m going to consider this myself. It might make for another kind of literary list to accompany my MustReadEverything authors’ lists as there might be some overlap between the categories but not every MustReadEverything writer would also be an InAnyMood writer for me. *muses*

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