cleverggirlWriter talking…through her character:

“And I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life, which we set such store by. The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.”

“What befell” is a two word definition of literature that I have come to admire after reading Tessa Hadley’s novelistic equivalent of a bio pic. Clever Girl is 252 pages of how her character Stella, quoted above, “handled it”. I mean handled everything…her life.

In what sense is Stella clever? As a child, she is clever enough to find it strange that her father has “died” but is never mentioned by her mother. There are no photos of him in the house. Her mother’s side relatives don’t bring him up. Her father’s side relations have mostly disappeared. Stella suspects, rightly, that he’s still alive.

She is clever enough to solve a high school physics problem that stumps her new stepfather, showing him up. She discovers her intellect as the reader bears witness.

Underestimating Hadley, I anticipated a brilliant academic career for Stella. But what the writer anticipated is Valentine, a platinum high school god, who you suspect will tarnish more like tin over time.

Valentine’s the 1960’s Bristol version of Jack Kerouac and James Dean combined, utterly beautiful and, so everyone thinks, totally cool. Boys and men want to hang out with him and girls adore him.

The novel swerves. Stella is derailed by a boy who mostly holds her hand and provides her with weed as they lie at night in the back garden of a neighbor’s yard, her stepfather scowling over the hedge. They laugh at him.

I have to leave Stella on the lawn with her teenage Adonis. I can’t reveal what you should be reading. Good stories swerve. Stella copes. She moves out…a lot. She runs when she can’t take it anymore. But she also knows how to come back…sometimes.

Clever Girl is populated by a network of relations, friends, lovers, commune comrades and children. Tessa Hadley is a family writer…she thinks creatively in terms of relations. She can tell you as well about families in 250 pages as A. M. Homes can in 700.

Some of Hadley’s characters never move from the locales in which they are first presented. They’re like fixed co-ordinates on a map or like chess pieces that never leave their original position.

Valentine’s mother, for example, lives in the same house from the beginning of the story to the end. In the closing chapter the elderly woman is fretting about her weekly grocery delivery, which seems to be the central event in her day. You sense a fretful life contracted to its narrowest focus. Stella’s mother moves once, I believe, when she saves her life by remarrying.

Of all characters in the novel, Stella moves the most and is in motion the most, like a dynamic queen in a chess game, even if she started out as a pawn. In one coup of a scene, she runs away on a horse. It throws her. Horses bookend “Clever Girl”.

Clever Girl releases in March from Harper. I was given a galley by a book brother who knew of my affection for this writer.