"Clever Girl" by Tessa Hadley Originally published in the June 6, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
You may have noticed that I’ve been silent for the past week for which I apologize. It has been one of those tremendously busy weeks working at all hours. I haven’t had time to even read comments here, something I hope to change immediately now that things have slowed down and I’m about to start a holiday.
Despite the busy schedule doing other things than read, it has actually been something of a Tessa Hadley week for me. Her new novel The London Train came out in the United States a week ago (I haven’t read it yet) and KevinfromCanada ran a review; on a late night over the weekend I took some time to read her short story “Post Production” in the Colm Tóibín edited Spring 2011 issue of Ploughshares (you can actually read that story on the Ploughshares webpage here); and then yesterday I had a chance to read her new story in The New Yorker.
Hadley is no stranger to the short fiction in The New Yorker, having been published there 13 times since 2002 (with five of those occurring since January 2009 when I started reviewing the weekly offerings (and three of those just since November of 2010)). I have been pleased with everything of hers I’ve read, and, despite Kevin’s reservations, I’m anxious to read her new book.
Hadley’s short stories usually cover a great deal of time. We’ll meet a character and before long they will have aged. Yet the interactions we have with the characters are almost always very intimate. For example, “Post Production” opens with an amazing scene where the husband walks into the kitchen, begins talking to his wife, and drops dead on the floor mid-sentence. The shock, the echo, etc. — we see this poor wife very intimately. That story covers a lot of ground from the first wonderful paragraph, taking us quite a distance from the death, though, of course, the death remains clearly in our minds through the rest of the story, as it does for the wife.
All of this to get to “Clever Girl,” which is somewhat similar in this regard. Now, I will say that while I think Hadley’s ability to navigate these characters through time is impressive, I usually finishing the story not liking it quite as much as I did at the beginning when the characters are developing in those intimate settings.
“Clever Girl” is narrated by Stella, the only child to a formerly single woman who’d been struggling. Stella is telling this story with the benefit of hindsight (“I can see it now, from this distance.”), so we get that mix of childish impressions and adult insight. The story begins with a detailed description of her stepfather. We sense in this description and the ones that follow that perhaps their relationship wasn’t the best but that Stella, looking back, sees things quite a bit differently than she did then.
My stepfather wasn’t a big man, not much taller than my mother. He was lithe and light on his feet, handsome, with velvety dark brows, a sensual mouth, and jet-black hairin a crewcut as thick and soft as the pelt of an animal (not that I ever touched it, though sometimes, out of curiosity, I wanted to). His face was one of those whose features seem compacted, as if under pressure within a frame. He was energetic, intelligent, diligent, faithful — a stroke of luck for my mother, a lightning bolt of luck that had illuminated her grinding, narrow future and transformed it.
This transformed future involves moving to a new place by a grove of beech trees. There Stella meets her new friend, the dramatic Madeleine. It is again in one of those intimate moments, carried by good dialogue, when we see Stella’s first impression of Madeleine:
She looked like the kind of girl who would join in whenever there was squealing over something — blood, wasps, veins in school-dinner liver — although she wouldn’t quite mean it, would just be enjoying the noise and the distraction. She was too robust to be properly squeamish.
They grow close, though, and one of their secrets is the mystery of the grove of trees, their devotion to the grove that is at first for fun but eventually becomes more real. Together they start attending an exclusive school and find that they don’t really fit in. In the background of all of this is Stella’s relationship with her stepfather Norbert, or Nor, as she calls him.
Let’s be clear — our fight was mutual; I was set against Nor just as he was against me. Only I was a child, so he had power over me. That’s all tyranny is: it’s not in a personality; it’s in a set of circumstances. It’s being trapped with your enemy in a limited space — a country or a family — where the balance of power between you is unequal and the weaker one has no recourse.
These lines of the story come together nicely, but, again, at the end I couldn’t help but think the development was better than the conclusion. Looking back I can certainly appreciate Hadley’s style; she’s very good, and it surprises me she’s not better known. For whatever reason, though, this story didn’t quite work for me.
That said, I’m a fan of Tessa Hadley and think what she writes is worth reading.