Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

Bad DreamsI was looking forward to reading Tessa Hadley’s new volume of short stories, Bad Dreams, but it was even better than I expected. I feel a strong connection to her writing, her contemporary settings and characters, and I couldn’t stop thinking about some of these stories afterwards. The stories in Bad Dreams range across different times and places but always focus on relationships and families, memories and women’s experiences, and the defining incidents in people’s lives: a moment of realisation, an event that set someone’s life on a different path or a childhood experience that they always remember.

There are many reasons that I like Tessa Hadley’s work so much: her characterisation and psychological insight, the way her characters seem alive, without any cliche whatsoever. The way she can describe and strongly evoke places, whether it’s suburbia in the 60s or modern-day Leeds and London. I especially notice the vivid way she describes houses and the secret life going on inside a home. Some of her stories miraculously capture a child’s point of view and the sense of viewing the adult world from an outsider’s perspective, with a child’s curiosity and anxiety and gradual understanding.

One of the most striking stories was the first, An Abduction, which is set in the 1960s and describes how a teenage girl ended up getting in a car with a group of older boys, students on holiday from university. Jane, the main character, is portrayed as ordinary, conventional, from a conservative background and lacking in confidence, while Daniel, the leader of the boys is charismatic, intellectual and self-destructive. The events of the story are surprising and show that Jane has more of a rebellious streak than first appears. The setting is rather dreamlike and nostalgic and to me it seemed to capture the youth culture of the 1960s and a sense of different worlds being thrown together. A sort of coda at the end of the story, which describes what happened to the characters later on, is very powerful, as it shows the different ways people can view the same event, how what is important and life-defining to one person can mean nothing to another, and how a successful person can have a buried past that not even they themselves really know about. There is a sort of understated anger and intensity to the ending.

Probably my favourite story however was Flight, the story of Claire, a 40-something woman with a successful career in America, returning to visit her childhood home and sister’s family in Leeds. I loved the way the family relationships were described and the sense of distance Claire felt from the others, which was something she had deliberately chosen and welcomed but also grieved over. I really liked how Hadley gradually revealed more about the family background and hinted that Claire was more troubled than she first seemed. The ending was perfectly written and I felt there was something heartbreaking about it.

Another story I enjoyed was The Stain, a story about a young woman working as a carer for a wealthy and elderly man. It’s a very realistic, contemporary story and it is really refreshing to see working-class characters who are complex and real and not cliched at all. A few stories move earlier into the 20th century; Deeds Not Words is set at the time of the first world war and women’s suffrage movement, while Silk Brocade is about two young seamstresses in the 1960s. Most of my favourites are the contemporary stories, however; apart from the ones I’ve mentioned, I really liked Experience, about a 20-something woman house-sitting for an older, more glamorous woman and what happens when she starts to reads her diaries. I felt this story had an emotional impact because of the contrast between the narrator, who feels she hasn’t really lived properly, and Hana with her destructive love affairs and unapologetic way of living. I really liked the way the narrator’s and Hana’s roles were reversed at the end of the story.

To sum up: in case it isn’t obvious, I thought this book was wonderful and I’m sure I will think about these stories for a long time to come.

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