My New Yorker subscription is hanging by a thread. One of the lifelines that keeps it going is the frequent appearance in its pages of the short stories of Tessa Hadley. The Abduction is the best so far.
The story folds into two major sections which would have closure enough. But then Tessa riffs into an epilogue. It’s like discovering that at its mouth, a medium-size river empties into the sea.
First sentence: Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen and nobody noticed. You’re startled into attention.
Why did nobody notice? In the 1960’s, parents were more careless.
This is absurd but it does place the era. Hadley is getting at you. Hadley’s twisting what’s ordinary until it seems strange. But not so much that her plotline seems surreal. She lets the reader feel the chill of otherness on their own.
The first fold of this story lays Jane open. As I read it, I understood why the abduction was likely to happen. But Hadley is cheating literalism. Jane is not really abducted. It’s more like a pickup.
Jane obsesses about the sky as cerulean. There’s a nice touch later when Jane’s lover is described as wearing a blue shirt. There’s no other reason to mention that the character’s shirt is blue except that Hadley has set it up to tug at the reader.
Cerulean is not good. There’s a vapid blankness to Jane’s solid blue summer days. But for the Allsops, a smiling diffidence, like the blank summer days, is the required social conformity.
Jane pisses her father off when he’s driving out to the street by flinging her ball against his door window. The accident appears deliberate and Jane feels she’s lost a key family ally.
Before that in the woods, Jane encountered her sister Frances playing at tea for dolls with three friends. When they spied Jane walking up, they scattered like she’s a pariah, abandoning their tea things.
Jan overturned their place settings, which very memorably contained a pine cone on each plate and a rabbit turd in each toy cup. There’s a wealth of interesting details, a glossary of the writer’s delight in the sheer notice of things. For example, that’s a fine use of rabbit turd in a story.
After the incident in the driveway with her father, Jane has teared up. Hadley gives her character appropriate body language. The palms of Jane’s hands are splayed outward conveying a passive openness like…what’s next? I give up.
Driving past Jane’s driveway are three second-year Oxford boys, drunk and stoned, looking for an early morning pick-up after their all-night partying. I love the finesse with which Hadley describes Daniel, the pack leader. At first Tessa says that he’s the best looking but then she corrects herself. Daniel is crushingly beautiful.
So Tessa in her description of Daniel mimics a double-take. Like…you do a head-turn and say wow to yourself. Jane gets willingly abducted, or more precisely, with no will at all. The guys are nearly a generation older than her.
For the second fold in the plot we are hanging out at Nigel’s house while his parents are away. The guys had encouraged Jane, an innocent looking 15 year old, to shoplift liquor.
Nigel is the least appealing of the three guys. Jane is instinctively put off by Nigel, reinforcing how she is attracted to Daniel. Hadley, further supporting the theme of Daniel’s desirability, points out his alpha male effect on his friends, especially on Nigel, who lives to win Daniel’s approval.
Imagine what happens to drunk and stoned young people alone in a house for the weekend. Even fictional characters are entitled to some privacy. Or you could spy on them by reading this story.
Out to sea in the epilogue. Hadley allows us to find out what happens to the characters post 1960’s. In a poignant move, Jane never remembers where that summer house was. She wasn’t paying attention during her abduction and she never lays eyes on the house again.
Tessa Hadley says the most remarkable thing. That with a great deal of happiness, a great deal is forgotten. It’s a very Edith Wharton kind of thing to say. Wharton’s literature is full of characters who end up being forgotten. It’s like, for some people, in a happy life the mind becomes a huge bouquet. You can’t remember all the flowers. So someone in this story gets forgotten. If you’re halfway wise you will figure it out.
The Abduction resides in the July 9th, 2012 New Yorker.