Stella was born in 1956. She narrates the novel as a 50 year old, looking back over her life.
My mother and I lived alone. My father was supposed to be dead, and I only found out years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old. I should have guessed this – should have seen the signs, or the absence of them. Why hadn’t we kept any of his things to treasure? Why whenever he came up in conversation, which was hardly ever, did my mother’s face tighten, not in grief or regret but in disapproval – the same expression she had if she tasted some food or drink she didn’t like (she was fussy, we were both fussy, fussy together)? Why did none of our relatives or friends mention his name? (Which was Bert, unpoetically.) What had he died of, exactly? (‘Lungs,’ my mother said shortly. She had hated his smoking.)
Stella charts the course of her life, from these beginnings with her mother and her mother’s family – Nana and Auntie Andy; through the arrival of her stepfather Gerry; her scholarship to the Girls’ High School and on, navigating friendship, sex, children, work, death and marriage.
But what’s at the core of the book is Stella’s struggle with her intelligence. Born in a time when girls were supposed to learn to be good wives and mothers, she feels as though she doesn’t belong – either at the school or within her own family:
Gerry had been so keen for me to go to the High school; yet he was hostile to the power my education brought me. He thought I was putting on airs – and I expect I was, I was probably pretty insufferable with my quotations from Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins…Gerry knew an awful lot, he was always reading…however, I had an inkling that the books he read were somehow not the real books…It was a struggle between our different logics. Everything I learned, I wanted to be an opening into the unknown; whereas Gerry’s sums added up in a closed circle, bringing him safely back to where he began, confirming him.
Of course, Stella’s intelligence far from guarantees her a smooth passage through life, even once she has left the family home. Hadley creates a convincing portrait of a young woman trying to negotiate her way through a time period with which she is out of step.
Stella is accompanied by a full cast of characters, beautifully drawn by Hadley. Each comes with their own mini-portrait:
Mrs Watts – kindly but with a goitrous bulge on her neck I couldn’t bear to look at…
My stepfather wasn’t a big man, not much taller than my mother. He was lithe and light on his feet, handsome, with velvety black brows, a sensual mouth and jet-black hair in a crewcut as thick and soft as the pelt of an animal…
[My friend Madeleine] was pretty, breathy and bouncing with round eyes like a puppy’s, a mass of fuzzy, fair hair, and a tummy that strained against her light stretch-nylon dress.
I loved the descriptions. Indeed, I loved Hadley’s style altogether. However, ultimately I thought the lengthy chapters narrated consistently by Stella, with little dialogue to alter the tone and the pace, was a weakness which prevented the book from being a great, as opposed to a good, piece of literary fiction.
Thanks to Vintage Books for the review copy.