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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Tessa Hadley’s After the Funeral

Tessa Hadley
After the Funeral and Other Stories
(Knopf, 2023)

If you don’t know Tessa Hadley, she’s the multi-award-winning author of three previous story collections and eight novels. This new collection is a great introduction to her work and for those of us already familiar with Hadley, it’s a great addition. Throughout the collection, Hadley spins out character studies of (mostly) women at odds with themselves, their partners, their families, or life in general. Set in different eras and different parts of England, there are commonalities that run like a humming thread connecting these stories into a brilliant whole: love, loss, conflict, and the lies we tell each other and ourselves. The collection starts off brilliantly with “After the Funeral.” Philip Lyons—a pilot for BOAC—dies suddenly of a heart attack leaving behind his glamorous and dependent wife Marlene, and two daughters: Lulu and Charlotte. The girls are still very young but on the day of the funeral, they already know to focus on their mother, helping her choose her outfit down to the large black sunglasses. Charlotte quickly takes the lead in the small family. Marlene’s relatives are only briefly present, disappearing when it’s clear there’s no inheritance but Philip’s family is overly-involved, his mother “Nanna” having already deemed Marlene “inadequate.” Marlene is glamorous to a fault and clueless about the family’s finances which, it seems, are a mess. Various of Philip’s family show up to “take charge,” Charlotte deftly maneuvering them as best she can. At first, for the girls, their father’s death seems a mild blessing “now there was no one, ever again, to stop them enjoying themselves.” But Charlotte is quick to scold her younger sister “we can’t ever be naughty again, now that Daddy’s dead…Because then Nanna will adopt us and we’ll have to live with her.” And soon they realize that “Some of their treats…seemed less pleasurable now that they didn’t fear his disapproval.” Because the story is told in a close third person from Charlotte’s point of view, there are moments when we as adult readers can see more than she does although she soon suspects things are not what they seem. Their Uncle Richard “the dentist” becomes a presence in their lives and it’s not really a surprise when we later learn he’s sleeping with Marlene. Nanna decides the family will have to move and Marlene will have to get a job—which the family finds for her. Surprising everyone, Marlene is good at her job although the dentist she works for, Dr. Cherry, begins spending too much time in the family’s apartment. Marlene again surprises everyone by getting a driver’s license and once she has a car, her small family gains more freedom. Marlene gets a new job at the local supermarket and seems to be doing well, but Charlotte decides she’ll postpone going to University—she thinks she needs to take care of her mother, a concern we learn later that she takes to self-detrimental extremes. The story ends with Charlotte in crisis and a brief glimpse from Dr. Cherry’s point of view of just how much he’s abused these vulnerable women.

In “Dido’s Lament,” the glamorous Lynette is pushed, perhaps unintentionally, on the subway stairs and sprains her ankle. Despite the rush hour crowds, she decides to follow the man who pushed her and force an apology but when she finally catches up with him, she realizes he’s her ex-husband Toby. Although it’s an outrageous coincidence of Dickensian stature, it still somehow works. They haven’t seen each other for nine years and it was a difficult breakup. Toby seems happy to see her though and even invites her out for a drink which becomes an invitation to come to his home—his wife is away. He’s successful now, happily married, and has two little girls. Lynette lies and says she’s “perfectly happy, she was still singing.” Rather than spinning out into an expected sexual encounter, they spend the time “avoiding treacheries…passing on safe stepping stones above dark-flowing water.” And while Lynette looks for “any little clue” that something is missing from Toby’s new life, she doesn’t discover anything. Lynette gives her his number, and in a perhaps obvious but also well-crafted action-as-metaphor, “just as Toby closed the door behind her, abruptly stopping up the flood of light from inside, she put her weight down clumsily on her sprained ankle, missing the bottom step and slipping heavily on the wet stone: sick with pain, she cried out” but Toby doesn’t hear her. There’s a shift to Toby’s point of view—he erases her phone number, regretting it when he discovers she’s left her shopping behind—which he hides in his office and we learn that all is definitely not as it seems in his new, supposedly happy life. Then with another deft shift in point of view, we see Lynette considering Toby and her own freedom.

“The Bunty Club” starts with Serena, the youngest of three middle-aged sisters staying in their mother’s home while she’s in the hospital. Serena is dancing in the tall grass of the overgrown garden, glorying in the sunshine and the day, “Everything was to come!” and this is one of those moments when Hadley’s prose really sings. Serena’s older sisters, Pippa and Gillian, are less inclined to dancing in the garden. They’re both solid, retired from good jobs, and with families of their own. They share a degree of concern over the state of the house, the garden, and their mother whose fall “might have been a seizure.” Hadley does a wonderful job of weaving past and present together as the sisters are forced to confront their memories and relationships. And, of course, there are those moments of shining prose: “Sadness made its claim on them now, winding through all the daily clutter like a cool long note played on a flute.” When a local man shows up to help around the house, Pippa asks him to trim the long grass in the garden setting up a showdown with Serena and a perfect metaphor for their shared grief and loss along with the rough male presence in a house full of women: “they found the deep peace of Fern Lodge ravaged by the intrusion of the strimmer’s insane snarling and whining, as Sean, shirtless, went at the long grass in the garden, filling the air with whirling, glinting dust and shards.” For Serena, the garden becomes a “scene of devastation” and Sean’s work has spoiled “the only beautiful thing left here.” Just as the sisters seem irrevocably at odds, one of them discovers a box in the attic dedicated to a secret club they had as kids—the Bunty Club—and “The textures of the past rose around the sisters like an uneasy dream, alien and stale and intensely familiar. For twenty minutes it was intoxicating, hilarious.” The expected ending comes but with a strangely uplifting revelation brought to life through Hadley’s prose.

In “My Mother’s Wedding” and “Funny Little Snake” two very different families exhibit terrible parenting that leads to rebellion and a possibility of escape and perhaps happiness for the protagonists. Amidst the noise and nudity of her mother’s “alternative lifestyle” Janey is struggling for normalcy—studying for her A levels, keeping track of her younger half-siblings, and helping manage preparations for her mother’s solstice wedding to the much younger Patrick, an Oxford scholar. For Janey there’s no expectation of good parenting, “That was the way life was divided up between me and my mother. I knew about things, and she was beautiful.” Patrick is a positive but divisive influence—both Janey and her younger sister Eithne have fallen for him. And when Janey’s mother fails to show up in time, Janey creates her own surprise ending. In “Funny Little Snake,” twenty-four-year-old Valerie is left to care for her much older husband Gil’s nine-year-old daughter Robyn who can’t even “fasten her own buttons” and is strangely uncommunicative. Valerie doesn’t really want Robyn to visit but knows she knows the child is “part of what she paid for having been singled out by the professor among the girls in the faculty office in King’s College London.” As the story plays out, it becomes apparent that Gil is a terrible father and a not-much-better husband although Valerie continues to make apologies for him, “Gil was truly selfish, never taking her needs into consideration; but on the other hand the selfishness of important men was part of their dignity, they had to be selfish in order to get on with their work.” When Gil tells Valerie she’ll have to bring Robyn back to London by train rather than driving his daughter himself, she’s angry but then interested to meet his ex-wife Marise. Marise lives in a large and poorly maintained Victorian in Chelsea with her much younger lover Jamie. Marise’s home is a mess of filthy dishes, empty bottles, and drugs. Valerie leaves Robyn with Marise to stay with her own mother overnight. Valerie had planned to go home in the morning but it snows and the trains aren’t running. And so, she finds herself traveling back to the Chelsea house where Robyn is standing in her window “The child’s whole body responded in a violent spasm of astonishment, almost as if she’d been looking out for Valerie, yet not actually expecting her to appear.” Valerie makes a dangerous choice and one we can only hope will lead to happier times for both of them.

In “Men,” Michelle Brennan works at the hotel where her mother once worked. Her sister Jan ran away at seventeen but is back visiting the hotel—now the glamorous mistress of gangster Martin Donoghue. Donoghue brings a large party to the hotel for a celebration and when Michelle sees her sister Jan, she spends the evening waiting for violence that never comes. Overnight there’s an incident but Jan’s not the victim and later, although Jan asks for her by name, Michelle decides to avoid any chance of reunion. One of the shortest stories in the collection, it’s a study in missed chances and failed connections. In another exploration of a young girl growing into herself, “Cecilia Awakened,” Cecilia is fifteen and on vacation with her much older parents in Italy. Her parents—Ken and Angela—are academics and ill-equipped to cope with Cecilia’s sudden awakening from childhood. Told in close third person, we can easily feel Cecilia’s pubescent rage at the world, her parents, even the vacation itself. “Mia” is another story told from the point of view of a young girl growing into adulthood. Alison is doing well at school “but it didn’t make her happy. She wanted to be beautiful.” Her mother tells her “that intelligence was what counted.” Alison makes extra money catering dinner parties for her mother’s friends and when she’s hired by Mia, she’s immediately fascinated by the woman’s glamor and her modern home. But Alison soon discovers that all that glamor hides a dark secret and that sometimes beauty isn’t enough.

In “Old Friends,” Christopher and Sally and Frank are long-time friends. Sally is married to war photographer Frank—an absentee and wildly ineffectual father and husband. Christopher is in love with Sally and when he saves Sally’s youngest from drowning - while Frank looks on loudly denying the child is even in danger - it’s apparent that Sally is with the wrong man. But when Frank dies from a blood infection in Syria, despite Christopher’s best efforts, Sally is unable to move on. And while it’s a bit melodramatic in tone, still, we can’t help but want Sally to see Christopher and move on from her terrible - now dead - husband. In another story of love and grief, “Children at Chess,” a man learns that his sister is seriously ill. He reminisces about their past: “They had been great friends when they were children, lonely and self-sufficient, growing up in a succession of European and African cities…Their private language had been a ragbag of French and Dutch and Portuguese, so that no one else could understand their jokes.” Split up when he was thirteen and sent to boarding school in England, they’d grown apart. He’d been miserable at boarding school but never told her, “he had presented to her as to everyone his new dry carapace of manliness, disenchanted and absent.” As he contemplates the impending loss of his sister “his heart was filled with ash and madness. He had reconciled himself years ago to the idea of his own death, but it hadn’t occurred to him to imagine his sister’s.” Although brief, this is a delicate and graceful contemplation of grief.

“The Other One” is a complex and compelling tale of a complicated family history, adultery, lies, and lost love. As the first lines tell us: “When Heloise was twelve, in 1986, her father was killed in a car crash. But it was a bit more complicated than that.” It’s now more than thirty years later, Heloise’s mother Angie is seventy-two, and Heloise is divorced with two young children. We soon learn that when her father died, he was in a car with two young women in France. One of the women was his lover, the other one—supposedly—was named Delia. When Heloise meets a woman named Delia she begins to think about the car crash and her father. Heloise spends time with her friend Antony—also a single parent - and hopes they can become more than friends. When Heloise’s brother Toby arrives from LA, there are revelations and Heloise has to rewrite the family history she’s told herself. Through twists and turns, we witness Heloise’s heartbreak as all is revealed. But rather than leaving the story with Heloise, it ends in a wistful memory that points to the true loss at the center of the story.

“Coda” is a gentle story set during the COVID-19 lockdown and one of the best lockdown stories I’ve read. Diane has moved to her mother Margot’s small home in an “unfashionable seaside town” partly to care for her mother and partly because her own life is a mess. During the months of lockdown, Diane travels regularly to the local supermarket for groceries but otherwise, the two women have only each other for company. Diane is reading her way through “Madame Bovary” and the novel inspires her to develop a crush on one of the only other people she sees, a woman who takes smoke breaks outside the house next door. The woman, she learns, is named Teresa, once cared for Margot’s last husband Dickie, and now cares for the neighbor, Mr. Hansen. Margot complains about Teresa, claiming she tried to rob Dickie although the reality is more heartbreakingly complicated. Diane, although she is relatively young and healthy, thinks of the story of her own life as “set down, its themes were established, and I was living in the coda.” It’s a dark view but one that appears in other stories in this collection—the quiet acceptance of life’s limitations, particularly for women living alone. One afternoon, Diane gets lost in her novel and reads well past the time Margot should have been up from her nap. In the ensuing crisis, Diane reaches out to Teresa and the story ends in a quiet release, Teresa’s sturdy presence providing a calm Diane couldn’t achieve without her. As with many of the other stories in this collection, there is a calm resolution if not an uplift at the end that shifts the sadness into a deeper contemplation of what it means to be a woman, a daughter, a lover, a mother, a sibling, and a human being. Rife with deft and often beautiful prose, and astute but compassionate characterization, this is a wonderful collection.


Yvonne C. Garrett

Yvonne C. Garrett holds an MLIS, an MFA-Fiction, two MAs (NYU), and a Ph.D. with a dissertation focused on women in Punk.


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