In Tessa Hadley’s perhaps inaccurately titled novel The Past (only a middle section is set in the past; most of the book concerns the present), British adult siblings Harriet, Alice, Fran, and Roland return to their grandparents’ crumbling country cottage for a last vacation. Also in tow: Roland’s beautiful, sophisticated Argentine wife, Pilar; his teen daughter, Molly; Alice’s ex-boyfriend’s 20-year-old son, Kasim; and Fran’s young children, Ivy and Arthur. Though it was billed as a relaxing holiday, tensions begin to boil as Pilar’s loveliness intimidates the other women, Harriet in particular. Then Kasim and Molly develop an inevitable flirtation, and Ivy and Arthur make a disturbing discovery in an abandoned cottage nearby.
Hadley is so perceptive about the tiny ways we find ourselves performing for one another, and so skilled at fluidly dipping in and out of the minds of her characters—whether they’re 6 and wishing to spy on the grown-ups or 76 and considering the comforts of decades-long marriage—that it can feel like she’s revealing little secrets about life that it would have taken you years to notice on your own. Sometimes her shifts between different characters’ points of view can be jarring, but once you regain your footing on the page, the stunning beauty of her sentences takes over again. A–