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If, at the outset, Tessa Hadley’s characters in her new collection After the Funeral and Other Stories seem — despite their many muted traumas — to be doing more or less okay, each story ultimately forces at least one person to face up to a truth that can range from the deeply uncomfortable to the devastating.

The precipitating incidents for these revelations include the funeral of a philandering airline pilot, a hippie wedding, a stepmother’s first meeting with her inept and unloved stepdaughter, a long-ago car wreck in France, and a COVID-era encounter between two women caring for their elderly charges.

One of the most surprising disclosures comes in “Dido’s Lament,” a story about Toby and Lynette, a former husband and wife who have not seen one another in years, and who literally bump into each other in the London Underground. Toby is now married with children and successful in his work. Lynette, by contrast, is an office temp still trying, unsuccessfully, to make it as an actor. She is currently “guesting in a student production of Dido and Aeneas, where Aeneas was got up as the captain of an American football team and Dido was a cheerleader” — a classic bit of Hadleyan invention, which is all the more comic for the clause that concludes the sentence: “it worked surprisingly well.”

Toby takes Lynette back to his well-appointed home and wows her with not only his newfound confidence and prosperity, but also his gentlemanly kindness. While she seems open to the prospect of getting back together, he ultimately sends her on her way. Throughout the story, despite all his evident assurance, something has been not quite right about Toby. In the hands of a lesser writer, he might be a stalker or creep of some magnitude, but, in fact, he is simply spiritually damaged. As he eats an omelet and watches TV, a huge and awful truth threatens to overwhelm him: “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.”

Toby’s secret may be an especially heavy one to carry, but just about everyone in After the Funeral is toting around some baggage that will come spilling out during the course of Hadley’s stories. Typically, it doesn’t take long for trouble to become apparent, but the full extent of its ramifications don’t normally appear until the end. Consequently, even when the action seems squarely centered in the mundanities of middle-class British life, there’s always a sense of suspense. We know that something is going to happen, or something is going to be revealed, and someone is going to be unsettled by the action or the revelation.

The most marvelous aspect of Hadley’s writing is her eloquent ability to describe the things of this world. In “The Bunty Club,” for instance, she details “the clandestine meetings” of three young sisters in a family’s shed with the loving specificity of a Dutch still-life painter as, “crouching on the floor amongst all those dangerous tools they weren’t supposed to go near, the splintery plank walls fragrant with creosote, her arms wrapped tight around scabbed knees, feeling scalded and enthralled by what was forbidden. The shed was ripe with the smells of tomato plants, 3-in-One oil, mealworms for the bird table, crusts of cut grass souring the blades of the mower; beams of brilliant light from knotholes pierced its stuffy dimness.”

Certainly, the visuals are vivid: the tools and splintery walls, the young girl with her arms wrapped around her knees, the lawnmower still crusted with grass, and the light shining through the wood’s knotholes. Yet the appeal to the olfactory system is just as strong; we have the smells of creosote and wood, tomato plants, and lubricating oil, the frassy stink of mealworms, the unpleasant smell of cut grass losing its fresh scent. All the time, the language is straightforward, almost plain, with only a little showing off, as in the half-rhyme of “scalded” and “enthralled” and the way the grass sticking to the mower is “souring the blades.” Prose like this is a gift, and we are foolish not to receive it as such.

Seven of the 12 stories were published in The New Yorker, so if you are a regular reader of that magazine, you’re bound to come across something you’ve read before. My advice is to read it again. Hadley’s fiction, especially the shorter variety, deserves all the praise it receives.

This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.


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