"An Abduction" by Tessa Hadley Originally published in the July 9 & 16, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
I have generally really enjoyed Hadley’s many pieces in The New Yorker. They unravel slowly and bring familiar bits of the past forth with unique characters. “An Abduction” was similar in tone and style to what we’ve had before, but unfortunately it didn’t quite do it for me. Strangely, though, I do believe — as usual with me and Hadley — that I will remember it and the characters for quite some time; Hadley again does a great job developing her character. The problem is — and I don’t usually complain about this — she cuts it short.
Here’s how it begins:
Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.
That’s an intense and provocative beginning, but the story (purposefully, I believe, and to great effect) does not deliver the thrill we might expect from “An Abduction.” The first few pages take us through one of Jane’s mornings in upper-class Surrey in the 1960s. We know she is about to get abducted, but Hadley let’s us spend some time with her on this warm day as she wanders from thing to thing, never quite finding what it is she is looking for, feeling there’s something she wants but unable to find it. She’s both too young and too old to enjoy the day.
Jane was listless, her mind a blank with vivid little jets of dissatisfaction firing off in it. Real children, somewhere, were wholesomely intent on untying boats or building dams or collecting butterflies to asphyxiate in jars (as she and Robin had done one summer). She should be like them, she reproached herself; or she should be more like some of the girls at school, painting on makeup, then scrubbing it off, nurturing crushes on friends’ brothers she’d only ever seen from a distance, cutting out pictures of pop stars from Jackie magazine. Jane knew that these girls were ahead of her in the fated trek toward adulthood, which she had half learned about in certain coy biology lessons. Yet theirs seemed also a backward step into triviality, away from the thing that this cerulean day — munificent, broiling, burning across her freckled shoulders, hanging so heavily on her hands — ought to become, if only she knew better how to use it.
Up the road come three young men, on break from Oxford, also anxious to find something to satisfy whatever urges they have. They need a girl, they say, and when they see Jane they figure she’ll do. At this point, we know that Jane is going to go with them willingly, and as selfish and despicable as the three Oxford boys are, they never become the dangerous boys we might expect. Yes, things happen, and Jane believes she is on the path to adulthood. Enjoying the change she feels, Jane is deflated when it becomes obvious she’s going to go back home, the path she started merely a cul-de-sac that, somehow, stunts her for life.
In the last few paragraphs, we fast-forward through Jane’s life (as well as the life of one of the boys, who will not remember this day), and it’s here, right when I’m completely involved in what that day did to Jane, that I wanted more since Hadley was at least interested enough in the consequences to summarize them. Unlike Munro, who can summarize a life in such a way we almost feel we’ve lived it, here Hadley seems to be wrapping up a bunch of things she wanted to describe but didn’t have the space to develop. Central to the story is Jane’s state of limbo between that childhood of “cerulean” days and adulthood, and, when it becomes clear she’s staying in that limbo for a long time, we get more, but it’s essentially no more than an afterthought. Consequently, the story, despite its promise, didn’t do much more than many other stories about the threshold of adulthood.
It may well be that as this story and its characters sit in my mind for a few days, I’ll start to find more and more to them, but I’m doubtful. Nevertheless, I was completely engaged and, as I said, won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.