In modern fiction, authors have lured us to expect the fantastical. Twisted worlds and extraordinary circumstances inflate stories, which can subjugate the smaller elements of human emotion and relationships. Ancient allegory has made a comeback with books like Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods , and fantastical, Dickensian characters run amok in works including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch . With all of the personality fireworks and apocalyptic games at play, what happens when a narrative slows? What happens when a novel centers on an ordinary life, in all of its tough breaks and serendipity?
In Clever Girl (Harper), the second novel from British author Tessa Hadley, narrator Stella recounts her strikingly ordinary adolescence and young adulthood in a conversational style that is reminiscent of a memoir. Her voice is wistful, but never sentimental. She talks to us throughout the story as if we’re strangers on a train rather than intimates invited for lunch. Her recollections circle back and forth on top of one another, providing perspective from the original moment (“Now that he’s gone, I realize…”) and giving the story its distinct conversational tone.
Stella’s tale begins at age 10 as a single mother’s child living in midcentury English suburbia. The descriptions vibrate with a mix of youthful longing and claustrophobia, creating a sense of dread reminiscent of Vivian Gornick’s similar memoir, Fierce Attachments. Setting the scene to meet her first love, she explains that “we are mad with summer, chafing and irritable with sex… A breeze, stirring the dust in the gutter sluggishly, tickles up round our thighs, floats our dresses — we can hardly bear it.”
In her dreamy landscape I’m transported to my own teenage summers, stuck in a landscape too cramped for my ambition. I can hear the Fiona Apple in the air; feel the cheap, snagging fibers of my sleepover sleeping bag. In these early chapters, Stella’s blind angst against her mother and new stepfather’s rule is a canvas the reader can easily project her own bygone frustration on. She’s not too much of anything, making it easy to recreate ourselves in her shoes, aching to be free and chase down her potential as a clever girl.
As Stella grows up just barely into an adult, her world begins tumbling away from her dreams. She gives birth to her high school boyfriend’s baby at 18, while the unwitting father runs away to the U.S. As Stella’s potential spirals, the narrative goes along with it. Her wanderings from live-in housekeeper to commune-dweller into unexpected wife and half-hearted academic tease us with moments of intrigue, but these opportunities (like Stella’s clever nature and intelligence) are squandered. Time passes strangely between chapters, with entire decades glossed over as an afterthought. She often hints at her second son’s darkness and cruel, angry nature, but she fails to reveal what this entails. We’re introduced to characters like Fred Harper, an English teacher who was also in love with her high school boyfriend, and eventually offers a home to her family. The man seems rife with contradictions and pain, but he’s relegated to the sidelines as a landlord. Developing interest in characters or situations, only to have them flicked away, quickly became tiresome.
By the end of Clever Girl, I felt at arm’s length from Stella and her world. The ambivalence made it difficult to enjoy the full journey through her ordinary life, as much as I admired the evocative descriptions and imagery. I ached to see Hadley’s talent shine in a more fantastical fashion, through a more exceptional person than Stella ever allowed herself to become.