"Honor" by Tessa Hadley Originally published in the February 7, 2011.
I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of Tessa Hadley’s short fiction. She’s frequently in The New Yorker (this is her fourth story I’ve written about since I started my New Yorker fiction project in January 2009. All of them offer a great sense of the people involved, generally just a couple of characters developed through a few episodes, though the stories often take us into a few different times.
This particular story is a great follow-up to last week’s piece by Alice Munro, which looked at a pair of girls growing up fifty years ago. Here, in “Honor,” our narrator is Stella, a woman in her mid-fifties and is looking back to the early 1960s when she and her mother lived together alone:
My father was supposedly dead, and I found out only years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old. I should have guessed this — should have seen the signs, or the absence of them. Why hadn’t we kept any of his things to treasure? Why whenever he came up in conversation, which was hardly ever, did my mother’s face tighten, not in grief or regret but in disapproval — the same expression she had when she tasted some food or drink she didn’t like (she was fussy, we were both fussy, fussy together)? Why did none of our relatives or friends ever mention his name? (Which was Bert, unpoeticaly.) What had he died of, exactly? (“Lungs, my mother said shortly. She had hated his smoking.)
It goes without saying that this was a rough time for a woman to be a single parent. I imagine it must have been even more disgraceful if she was abandoned and not a widow. However, Stella’s mother puts up a very strong front in the face of the times:
This was in the nineteen-fifties and the early sixties (I was born in 1956), so many things that seem quaint now were current and powerful then: shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you away from the inside.
Hadley takes us back to this time and introduces us to this narrator when she was an ignorant child and then she introduces us to Auntie Andy (Andrea) and Andy’s son Charlie, who is roughly the same age as Stella. Stella never really knew Charlie (Andy was the only relative from the father’s side to keep in touch, but it was still only every once in a while), but she also never really liked Charlie. Then, out of the blue, there is a phone call. Auntie Andy has asked to come stay with them for a while. Stella’s mother says not to ask about Charlie or Charlie’s father. When Andy arrives, she gives an eerie description of Auntie Andy who was once very shy:
Her face was rather white. She reminded me of a girl at school, who had been slapped for extreme insolence (usually only the boys were hit): when this girl walked back to her desk, she was in a sort of smiling daze, vivid with shock.
Though no one is telling us or Stella, we can guess that something terrible has happened to Charlie. Stella herself has only been able to piece together the story through the years as a bit of detail pops out here and there. However, her mother finally does tell her that Charlie is dead. Charlie’s father is on trial:
People had mixed feelings about men’s violence against their families in those days: it was disgusting, but it was also, confusedly, part of the suffering essence of maleness, like the smell of tobacco and the beard growth. I think that sexuality itself was sometimes understood, by the women in my family, as a kind of violence that must be submitted to, buried deep in the privacy of domestic life.
All of this is very well told. We go into the narrator’s young consciousness as she figures out what has happened, deals with the other kids at school, and begins to realize that Charlie was a real person who had real experiences. It is a very powerful, if conventional, line in the story.
However, the story’s real power lies in how it looks at the aftermath for the women. Andy has that dazed smile. She’s grieving, certainly, but as the story progresses, while we never — or I never, at least — questioned her love for her son, somehow this previously shy woman has a respectible reserve about her. And if we step back to the beginning of the story, when Stella is telling us about her own mother and absent father, we can’t help but see some similarities. We never know what Stella’s father did. Was he abusive? It doesn’t say. Nevertheless, Stella’s mother has a portion of independence now, and we can sense that she is thriving in it. All of this is subverted:
And then, within a couple of years, they both found themselves a man, as if that had been the whole point of the enterprise.
Certainly a story to pay well on multiple readings, it is a nuanced look at the violence these women experienced and how it affected them. At the same time we have this narrator trying to tell her own story in the wake of tragedy and secrecy.