By Tessa Hadley
252 pages, $25.99
By Susanna Kaysen
258 pages, $25.95
By Karen Bradley
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Middle age revisits childhood in two unusual, and nuanced, new novels by veteran authors Tessa Hadley and Susanna Kaysen. Both are worth the journey – but only if you know that Kaysen’s “Cambridge” is far more memoir than fiction, and that Hadley’s “Clever Girl,” after a slow start, becomes quite intriguing!
“Cambridge,” a roman à clef (though most of the names are real), is set in the mid-1900s in London, Florence and Athens as well as Cape Cod and Cambridge, Mass. Its narrator, like its author, is named Susanna.
Hadley’s “Clever Girl” is, correspondingly, a chronicle of mid-20th century life in Britain as experienced by a girl called Stella.
But here the similarities end – for Stella and Susanna, while both brave in their ways, are each of a different mettle, Stella adventuresome and determined though raised in adversity; Susanna born to privilege, precocious but diffident toward almost everything, and often filled with doubt.
“Cambridge” is Susanna’s story and it doesn’t – but should – come with an author’s note explaining that the book is actually a prequel to Kaysen’s best-selling 1993 memoir, “Girl, Interrupted” (the movie version of which won Angelina Jolie an Oscar). Without knowing this, we, the readers, are faced with a tedious, diary-like trek through the childhood and adolescent thoughts of one very unpleasant and ungrateful girl.
Taken as a study, however, of the childhood of a young woman who will be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and spend nearly two years in a psychiatric facility – the book becomes almost compelling: When did the disorder begin? Or was it always there? Can we see it? Can we tell? Yes, we think so.
“I stared at the wall until my vision became peculiar, as if I were looking through a dark, throbbing funnel and could see only a small circle at the very end,” Susanna tells us at one point. “My ears were buzzing. I felt swirly and horrid, and I liked it. I wanted to feel even more horrid.”
Another time, Susanna claims, “I didn’t want to disappear. I wanted to disappoint.” At still another, she claims, “Even then, in the midst of this fourth-grade turmoil, I could see that my will to failure was an ambition … I would stand out. I would. I would. My Nobel Prize – Worst Daughter, Worst Student, whatever it might be – awaited me.”
Susanna’s intense dislike of her mother (a gifted, widely admired pianist) is perplexing – but yields marvelous descriptions of this apparently glamorous, life-affirming and fascinating woman.
Her father, a world-revered economist, is kind and loving toward this complicated daughter who nonetheless regards her parents, sitting with her small sister, and concludes, “they looked complete without me.”
Cambridge, the city, is only incidental here – despite the novel’s title – and seems to represent the place Kaysen calls home and yearns for only to find that, when she is there, it doesn’t measure up. Not much does, Kaysen finds in looking back at what was, ultimately, an unfulfilling childhood for her.
“As usual, my parents were having a lot more fun than I was,” she sees. “They had a knack for it. They loved to meet new people and try unfamiliar foods and dash from place to place seeing sights. They were avid for life; they wanted to eat experience. I wanted to stay home and read, and if I had to go out, I wanted to do something I’d already done, something predictable. It was as if they were the children, excited by all the new things, and I was the adult, anxious and stuck in my ways.”
Hadley’s “Clever Girl” – on the other hand – is an unsentimental study of a very-real-seeming child who grows into a better woman than she will ever know and who is aware, every step of the way, of the times she lives in.
“This was in the 1950s and the early ’60s,” Hadley’s Stella tells us early on. “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 from the inside.”
Stella’s initial years are spent in a bedsit with her single “mum,” Edna, and she is but 8 or 9 when her “real life” starts – with the arrival of an aunt on her father’s side whose husband has just murdered their young son.
“Apparently, for years Uncle Derek had been hitting Aunt Andy,” Stella recalls. “The whole topic of men’s violence against their families was kept better hidden in those days. People had mixed feelings about it: It was disgusting, but it was also, confusedly, part of the suffering essence of maleness …”
A stepfather named Gerry, and a new home, come next – and it is one evening, not long after, that Stella finds she understands her physics homework, and her stepfather Gerry doesn’t.
“That’s how I got to know I was clever,” she tells us. But it is not Stella who is the truly clever one here – it is British author Tessa Hadley: “Clever Girl” travels (at first) at a snail’s pace. It has no grand themes, or even a plot. But we can’t put the book down. That is the beguiling way of Hadley’s words. We come to believe in Stella, even to see something of ourselves in her.
She hates high school where “every subject shrank to fit inside its exam questions” but she cherishes her new sibling (a child named Philip) and when she falls in love – with the charismatic Valentine – well, it all makes sense, even when, at 18, Stella finds herself alone with a 12-week-old son she calls Luke (the first of two boys she will bring up mostly by herself, and later there will be a girl …).
It is in the midst of this seeming chaos that Hadley treats us to one of her sublime definitions, that of the happiness her heroine experiences (as she emerges from a physical illness, and brief run from responsibility):
“Drinking my tea propped up against the pillows, I was washed through with a delicate, passionate happiness. This had no apparent cause inside me, didn’t seem to arise from the facts of my life or from myself … I tried to prolong this happiness, or find a code I could store it in, so that it meant something even when I wasn’t feeling it. I imagined it as resembling the filmy skin of a bubble enclosing its sphere of ordinary air: impermanent yet also, for as long as it existed, flexible and resilient – real, a revelation.”
It is this sort of thinking – Hadley’s, Stella’s – that intrigues and endears here. When, later in her life, Stella finds a certain steadiness and calm, she rewards us further, musing:
“I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life, which we set such store by. The higher test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.