Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

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Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A quiet, deceptively simple novel about one woman's journey through life: family upheaval, love, academia and unplanned motherhood. Brilliant despite (or because of?) its reticence.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099570523

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Stella grows up with her single mother in Bristol in the 1960s; her father left when she was a baby, but her mother has cultivated the convenient myth that he died. In the stand-alone first chapter, Stella recounts a disturbing incident of domestic violence that affected her Aunt Andy. Sordid snippets from the ensuing court case stay with Stella over the years; 'Innocent-seeming fragments would get in past my defences…then stick to my imagination like tar.' Even so, the novel that follows is about the way in which we engage with memory – facts that linger versus those we, deliberately or subconsciously, choose not to tell.

Here are some of the things Stella remembers: finding her mother in bed with the strange man who would become her stepfather; meeting her best friend Madeleine and creating a silly cult around the beech trees cut down to build their housing estate; taking driving lessons from a man with her father's name, but never finding out if it is really him; and falling in love, several times, seemingly arbitrarily – with a homosexual, a bohemian artist and a married man.

As the title suggests, one of the novel's preoccupations is with what it means to be 'clever'. Stella is a successful student, but as she progresses through adolescence, she comes to question how clever she really is, especially when she falls pregnant at 17. The word bears several connotations, including intelligence and shrewdness, but for Stella it also has class implications. Though not haughty, she likes to think she is above her working-class origins: she suspects her builder boyfriend is too 'simple' for her, and yet she is terrified of stepping away from what is familiar, lest she fail. 'I didn't want to make a fool of myself, I couldn't bear the idea of being exposed in my raw, unfinished ignorance.'

Years of domesticity rob Stella of academic confidence, but at age 30 she finally begins an English degree – long before 'mature students' were commonplace. 'The Victorians saved me,' she announces, and it is through studying that period's lesser-known sensational novels that she gains a long-deferred sense of intellectual achievement; 'It was such a relief to be clever at last.' With Stella's choice of subject matter, Hadley sets up a subtle contrast between prudish Victorian values and the 1970s' new sexual ethics. Stella may resemble the 'fallen women' she encounters in those moralising triple-deckers, but she is also a strong-willed single mother who at one point lives in a hippie commune.

Clever Girl shares with Margaret Drabble's The Millstone a fixation on the ambiguous gift of unplanned motherhood; and with Drabble's work in general, as well as Iris Murdoch's, a trace of somewhat old-fashioned English reticence. In that its self-contained chapters at times seem to constitute a collection of linked stories, it brings to mind Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, which also plots a young woman's course through discrete chapters. But if there is one book this reminds me most of, it is John Williams's Stoner, the American campus novel (originally published in 1965) that became last year's surprise bestseller. Like William Stoner, Stella is an ordinary person who takes delight in literature but remains disappointed by the course life has taken. Though Clever Girl 's domestic and academic trials never approach the tragic tone of Stoner, the novels share a gentle air of regret.

And yet Hadley does not depict a character bowing meekly to Fate. 'The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you,' Stella declares. In a sense, Hadley is redefining the term 'life-changing', arguing that it is quiet, everyday happenings that make us who we are, much more than momentous events. From a novel with two murders and many broken relationships, I doubt the violent ruptures are what you will remember most clearly. After all, 'disaster comes…without any fanfare', and Stella retells shocking episodes in such understated prose that you could almost pass over them without realising their horror.

Still, readers may find Clever Girl frustrating for its lack of closure: Stella never knowingly meets her father, nor does she ever tell her first lover that he has a son. The opportunities for reconciliation and revelation are there, but she either refuses or botches them. With her occasional reticence about what seems to matter most, Stella can be a mildly infuriating narrator. What she remarks about her grandmother could just as accurately be applied to herself: 'not saying things was her speciality'.

All the same, I suspect this is the kind of book that every person (not just every woman) should reread once a decade, to recognise new parts of the view and gain better hindsight on what it has all meant so far.

Further reading suggestion: Try out the author's short stories in Married Love. Dear Life by Alice Munro also crafts compelling stories out of everyday lives.

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