‘Clever Girl’ zooms in on the turning points of an ordinary life

03/08/2014 9:53 PM

03/08/2014 9:53 PM

If Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win last fall was felt by many to be an endorsement for a realm of literature often overlooked — stories about the lives of girls and women — then “Clever Girl,” the fifth novel by British author Tessa Hadley, should be a sign that such books continue to deserve a shelf among the literary elite.

“Clever Girl” follows the life of an ordinary woman named Stella from her early childhood in the 1950s to her middle age in the present day. In 10 chronological chapters, Hadley achieves a good balance between subtlety and romance, the domestic and the sensational.

Though each chapter could stand alone (as two did, previously published as stories in The New Yorker), they add up to a complete, nuanced portrait of a woman who feels as knowable and real as a fictional character can.

The plot is simple, and it’s the same one we’re all participating in: Stella grows up, makes some choices, makes some mistakes, works, raises her family and grows older. Described like this, it doesn’t amount to much, and yet it feels true to life.

Hadley describes long spans of time in sweeping summary and zooms in on the moments that prove to be turning points or particularly memorable portraits of Stella’s life at the time.

Stella participates in the trends of her era, reading the Beats with her high school boyfriend and living in a communal house with some hippie-ish friends, but she never devolves into a cliché or stereotype.

Rather, she’s a collection of contradictions: bookish but unable to spend much time on reading, an unexpected but loving mother, a poor young woman turned well-to-do middle class wife. These contradictions serve to deepen her as a character, adding layers to our understanding of her and allowing her to come to life.

As a narrator, Stella has an immediate, intimate presence. With no preamble, we are brought into her world, her family, her neighborhood. Reading the novel feels like talking to a close friend we’ve only just met; she doesn’t presume we know anything about her, and yet we trust her implicitly. It’s Stella’s voice that pulls us through the novel and compels us to keep reading.

One of Hadley’s strengths is pausing moments of everyday life and describing them with fresh detail and turns of phrase, bringing new insight into ordinary phenomena.

“When I parted the curtains and looked out,” she writes early on, “the familiar scrappy back landscape — trellis and dustbins and old bikes and crazy-paving stepping stones — was glazed in sunshine, gleaming from its dip in the night.”

“Clever Girl” takes place in Bristol, a refreshing difference from the centrality of London in much of the literature that makes it across the pond. Hadley describes the city and Stella’s various houses with tight efficiency so that we get a clear sense of them without being overwhelmed by scenery.

Because the story is told by middle-aged Stella looking back at her life, everything is suffused with hindsight, as if she is finally able to see her past clearly. This leaves her free to explain what she was thinking and feeling during the difficult times without bogging the reader down in real-time uncertainty and woe.

For most of the book, this works quite well. But once Stella gets settled into her later, married life and achieves financial and familial security, some of the zip and drive of the earlier chapters goes away. As a reader, you’re happy that this woman you’ve come to know has arrived at a place of contentment, but it makes for less compelling reading.

Hadley chooses to have the book fade away into the sunset rather than ending with any kind of definite punctuation. For better or worse, though, how like life it is.

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