In “Silk Brocade,” the final story in Tessa Hadley’s remarkable new collection, a group of twenty-somethings in the early 1950s goes on a bender at a decaying English manor home. The atmosphere is subtly charged with the possibility of betrayal and danger, but while Hadley acknowledges that the men and women’s “drunkenness ought to have ended in some shame or disaster … it didn’t. They didn’t break any of the lovely glasses etched with vine leaves; no one threw up or said anything unforgivable; no one was killed. They didn’t even feel too bad the next day.”
And yet “Silk Brocade,” like all the carefully wrought tales in Bad Dreams and Other Stories, is riveting. Indeed, she so keenly suggests social nuance and psychological intuition that her stories might explode if they were packed with any more action and incident.
The adult characters in Bad Dreams are often bohemian in a middle-class British sort of way. Life seems less safe, however, for the girls and young women who are Hadley’s literary forte. There’s 15-year-old Jane Allsop in “An Abduction,” who takes a haunting car ride with three drunk and stoned boys; preadolescent Carrie in “One Saturday Morning,” who must entertain a grieving widower while her parents are out; and awkward 10-year-old Ruby in “Her Share of Sorrow,” who discovers the life of the imagination and the pleasures of writing through a stack of Victorian bodice-rippers stored in a stranger’s attic.
Again, a lesser writer might make mundane stories of this material, but Tessa Hadley writes sentences to savor, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. It’s no exaggeration to say that she is currently working at a level that is bound to make just about everyone else writing fiction in English more than a little jealous.