DH: It’s easy to believe in ghosts if you are one. Both of my parents, towards the end of their lives, told me that they felt like ghosts. Now that’s a fine thing for an adult child to hear. And if you’re a reader of literature, then you’re the ghost. Think about it. You’re a disembodied presence within the story. You’re aware of everything that’s going on but you are unable to affect anything. That’s a ghost. So there are ghosts…and we are them. We just don’t want to admit it.
But it greatly helps if the writer is skilled enough to encourage you to haunt their story. Tessa Hadley’s “Honor” is the short story in the Feb 7th issue of the New Yorker. And I hope it’s an excerpt from a new novel because that is a book I would be happy to buy. Tessa Hadley is a brilliant writer.
It’s all the more remarkable that this emotionally generous story largely takes place within the confines of one or two apartments. But you get to know those apartments as well as if you lived in them yourself….a fine situation for the devoted reader-ghost. There’s a first person daughter-of-the-house narrator but her attitude is not solipsistic so you are encouraged to care about the other characters.
This story opens with a great hook: a family lie. The father, Bert, had supposedly died years ago. But there are gaps in the reality of the mother’s story. These “gaps” are fascinating: why hadn’t they kept any of father’s things to treasure? Why does her mother’s face tighten up in disapproval whenever, if rarely, Bert’s name is mentioned? Why do no family friends or relatives ever mention his name? What had he died of…exactly? Great phony answer: lungs. Bert had actually deserted his family when his daughter was 18 months old. All these revelations are in the first paragraph of the story. TH is just warming up. All writers have to be the detectives of their characters, but Tessa Hadley is Sherlock Holmes.
“Honor” evokes the late 50’s and early sixties. The narrator’s mother wears white gloves when she goes out. We are so far from the white glove era that it seems like Mars. But Tessa does a great job, through the eyes of the child narrator, of conveying what it was like to keep up appearances. To be afraid that the outside world would find out something about you or your family that would shatter the carefully wrought illusion of propriety. We still live that way. Every family, every co-worker you know, is trying to hide certain unflattering truths from you. It’s just that now we don’t bother with the white gloves.
The narrator’s elderly Nana lives upstairs and TH tells a wonderful story about her. Her apartment is very spare, both on account of limited means and also because it seems to be Nana’s understanding of the meaning of life that it should be kept very spare and clean. Nana has put labels on all her furniture to indicate who gets what when she dies. Only no one wants any of her stuff. Now that’s touching.
Hadley has an inspired scene of the child in Nana’s bedroom alone, in retreat from her elder relative’s obsessive housecleaning downstairs. I’m a connoisseur of scenes where the writer puts a character alone. They’re almost impossible to do without boring the reader to tears and it’s a mark of a master writer to be able to pull them off. But Hadley remembers that, for a child, a parental-like figure’s bedroom has the allure of a maturity that they don’t understand. And TH describes Nana’s bedroom faultlessly…even to the inch or two that the bedroom upper window is left open so the room can get an airing…a practice that’s a relic of the pre-AC days.
Why is this story brilliant? Because everything works together. The white glove defensive shield of privacy, the Vestal-like reverence for the home indicated by that solo bedroom scene and Nana’s obsessive housecleaning. The sense that we need to protect our secrets, our very sense of self, our dignity, from the prying and accusing eyes of the world, all come to a grand summation in the arrival of a strange character wearing a funny hat, Auntie Andy…who is a relative of the missing father. Great touch.
About hats. I know a man whose hat can project a force of talismanic power. But it’s just a hat if anybody else wears it. Auntie Andy wears a beret at an “inappropriately jaunty angle”. It’s inappropriate because Auntie Andy has nothing to be jaunty about and wearing that hat just makes it worst…makes her look hapless and pathetic…but she’s trying…which is sad and brave. And it’s all in the hat. Hadley’s a genius. She knows that it’s the small things, not the grand things, that make us human…that make us care.
The white gloves come off as this story reaches its conclusion. Or do they really? Maybe you just get a hint, a subtle shadow, of what people are hiding or struggling with. But it’s enough to make you love them. Great story.
- The London Train, By Tessa Hadley (independent.co.uk)
- Tessa Hadley reads ‘The Jungle’ by Elizabeth Bowen (guardian.co.uk)
- Tessa Hadley on the present-day novel (guardian.co.uk)