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Of English Families and English Countrysides

The Past

By Tessa Hadley

Harper

311 pages, $26.99

...

The Children’s Home

By Charles Lambert

Scribner

210 pages, $24

By Karen Brady

Secrets of the English countryside imbue two unusual new novels steeped in family history (and that old bugaboo, the human condition).

Tessa Hadley’s “The Past” is the subtler yet less strange of the two – a book bringing four middle-aged siblings back to the declining home of their maternal grandparents, a place called Kington not far from the Welsh border where three of the four once spent a summer with their then-30-something mother.

Charles Lambert’s “The Children’s Home” is, by contrast, an eerie recounting of several months in the isolated country life of one Morgan Fletcher, the frighteningly disfigured and agoraphobic scion of a family that has long run the area’s largest industry.

Both books come bearing subtexts and are beautifully written, with near-live descriptions of a lush if often foreboding countryside. But it is Hadley’s that feels familiar, set first in the present, then the past – before returning to a now that, in three long weeks, has inexorably changed. In terms of the family, that is: the countryside, and the old home, are just as they were.

This is clear from the start of the novel as the youngest of the now-middle-aged children “unlocked the front door and the sisters stood hesitating on the brink of the interior for a moment, preparing themselves, recognising what they had forgotten while they were away from it – the under-earth smell of imprisoned air, something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it…”

In this, a place of shared memories, Henrietta, Alice and Fran stand united. If but for a moment. They have come to decide – along with their brother, Roland – whether to sell Kington. Roland is expected any hour now, along with his new (and third) wife, an Argentine attorney named Pilar.

It is Pilar, of all the book’s main characters, who establishes its center, from the second she meets the eldest of the clan, Harriet, who puts out her hand: “Pilar unwound from her chair and stood up to shake it. She was very handsome, and taller than anyone in their family; in fact, she seemed to be made of a different material to them, less fussy and more polished, simplified to a few strong statements – the dark strokes of her eyebrows, straight long nose, heavy jaw. Harriet was suffused for a moment in the pungent perfume the other woman was wearing, and could smell it on her fingers for hours afterward.”

Pilar presents the first danger, Kasim the second: He is the brooding, 20-ish son of a former boyfriend of Alice’s. He immediately notices Roland’s daughter, Molly, 16, while Fran’s children, a girl and a boy aged 9 and 6, are busy noticing everyone and everything – in particular a second, even older home, hidden away in a nearby forest. Some members of the family, we soon learn, share, or will share, a history with both houses.

Hadley is clever here – fine-tuning this orchestra of individuals to a fare thee well, quietly reviving childhood frictions, adding sexual nuance and, for some, old feelings of emptiness and inadequacy … We are reminded of Hadley’s affinity for Chekhov, the great Russian playwright whose characters assess and reassess themselves, often in family situations and in country settings.

In her acknowledgements at the end of “The Past,” Hadley says she “borrowed my structure – The Present, The Past, The Present – shamelessly from Elizabeth Bowen’s superb novel, ‘The House in Paris.’ ” She also credits Mavis Gallant’s “Paris Notebooks” for some details she uses, marginally, in “The Past” – of the civil unrest in France in the spring of 1968. For 1968 is “the past” in this very fine novel – one in which the reader is left with an extremely juicy and important secret that will now never be known to any of the book’s characters …

In contrast to the completely believable “The Past,” we have Charles Lambert’s utterly charming, utterly impossible “The Children’s Home” – a book that seems, at first, to be a fairy tale or a dream sequence but is, in actuality, a dark psychological treatise, a story of betrayal and deep loss transformed after the curious discovery of a foundling child, the first of many children to arrive at Morgan’s ancestral home…

It is Engel, the mysterious woman who has come to tend to Morgan’s cooking and cleaning needs, who finds the child, “an infant girl in a basket,” and brings her to Morgan, hidden away, as always, in his dark study:

“She said they should tell someone (who) would know what to do with her, but Morgan disagreed. Left to himself he might have been tempted, what use did he have with a child after all? But he could hear that Engel’s heart wasn’t in it. Just look at you both, he said. What could be better than this? Don’t you know how to deal with her as well as anyone?”

Morgan and Engel agree to keep the child “at least for a while” – and, from this moment on, Morgan the doomed man is somehow less doomed. He and Engel name the child Moira, a Celtic form of the Greek word for “fate” – and, in no time at all, there are other children, including a boy child called David, and a second girl, Daisy.

There is all the innocence of Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” here until “The Children’s Home” changes course and reminds a reader more of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” with evil clearly lurking somewhere, probably near …

Little Daisy becomes ill, and Engel insists that the town doctor come to see her – an occasion that causes Morgan to hide his hideousness behind a screen where he watches “this sunlike man” tend to Daisy. In what seems like no time, the doctor meets and befriends Morgan, and finds he would prefer to live at Morgan’s manse than in town.

In time, men from the town ministry – wonderfully dubbed Pate and Trilby – come to investigate rumors of “stray” children in Morgan’s home. But there is not a child to be seen anywhere, and Pate and Trilby leave. Soon, it is obvious that the children are taking over, with David in charge, suddenly older and knowing far more than Morgan and Dr. Crane.

Daisy is Crane’s favorite as she seems “to know nothing more than she should.” But the others: “Who are they?” Crane asks. “What do they want?” He and Morgan have no idea. They are in the midst of a very sordid tale indeed – and “The Children’s Home” will become a true horror before the reason for all this comes clear.

This includes a mighty battle wherein blood is shed – but good does overcome evil, at least for the time being, and Morgan will never feel the need to hide again. Or, as David tells him:

“… we have made a difference, haven’t we Morgan? Today? ... It’s all in your books, even when they pretend it isn’t true and call it stories. You saw that. Sometimes that’s all you can do with the truth. You should go and look.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.