After the trauma of reading The Tidal Zone, Tessa Hadley’s The Past was a welcome retreat. A mildly dysfunctional family in a cosy, mildly dysfunctional setting. It was a charming, knowing read. It understood the point of fiction and the number of roles it can play.
One aspect of the story is the romantic relationship between Molly and Kasim, in which the slightly older Kasim casts himself as knowing seducer. Of course, it is not as simple as that:
“Don’t be anxious about this, he said – I’ll be very gentle. I’ve had quite a bit of experience.
– I’ve had some too, Molly said, – so I’m not anxious”
Kasim is an economics undergraduate. He understands Monopoly.
“The idea of it’s that you use that money to make more money!”
But even from within deep boredom, he doesn’t want a novel to read.
“I don’t see what it’s for. Why would you put out any intellectual effort understanding something that wasn’t actually true?”
A beautifully succinct comment on his chosen discipline, which many would argue is based on a fiction rather than in real world situations, failed to predict the 2008 crash and shies away from nuance and ethical discussion.
However, I don’t want to give the impression that because the book was easy for me to slip into, that it had no drama; that because it is wry and sweet rather than edgy or dangerous, that it has nothing to say. This is a book about home: feeling at home, fitting in, moving on…
“Roland couldn’t help himself chafing at the narrowness and dullness of the little town. Sitting out like this on the street in any small town in France or Tunisia or Brazil, he’d have felt alive and stimulated, observing everything excitedly, drinking it in. He couldn’t enjoy this place, it was too familiar, it was home.”
Home is a complex concept. It is more than a place of dwelling; it is somewhere to travel to and from. Last week, I watched the beautiful smile of Nadiya Hussain (in the Chronicles of Nadiya) crumple when she spoke of the difficulties of having two homes, of belonging and not belonging in different ways.
Roland whilst shunning his home town notes how Molly’s class and Kasim’s brown skin make them out as strangers, as not belonging. As Yuval-Davis (2011) points out, home…
“can involve a sense of rootedness in a socio-geographic site or be constructed as an intensely imagined affiliation with a distant locale where self-realization can occur.”
It is a theme of psychology, sociology and psycho-social studies and is a concern of social policy and social work. How do we categorise those who belong? Or how do we support those outside to join the inside? Even, how do we move from an unhealthy attachment to place or sense of belonging to something/somewhere else? Is estrangement from home a part of growth and development?
This book is centred on four siblings: Harriet, Roland, Alice and Fran, but has two outsiders. First there is Pilar, Roland’s (third) wife, glamourous and successful. Her precise neatness as well as her Argentine nationality set her apart from the crumbling English home. Then there is Karim, whose relationship with others is even more distant as the son of a former partner of Alice. He is a Londoner of Pakistani origins, “completely English and unmistakably something else too”.
The family is a boundaried entity and the arrival of outsiders does more than disappoint and disrupt. It calls into question what it means to belong and on what basis belonging occurs. The action takes place within a dishevelled, neglected, inherited family house and the proximity of the past and each other, forces the siblings to reflect on who they are, and where they have travelled to and from. Identity becomes slippery and negotiated rather than solid and reassuring. The family gently unravels.
It would be possible to build all sorts of analogies, but what really matters is that the family retains a sense of who it is, whilst changing, growing, shifting shape, changing allegiances. The past impinges on, but is not the future. To fully understand belonging means not just to consider the big structural issues of class, gender and race, which surely play a part, but also to look at “the relationships between positionings, identities and political values” which Yuval-Davis (2011: 10) states are central to the study of belonging. Understanding signifiers of ‘identity’ is not the same as understanding ‘social location’.
“…crucially, people cannot be simply defined in most situations, as either belonging or not belonging. Emotions – from feeling comfortable, safe or entitled to various rights and resources – are endemic to belonging, but different people who belong to the same collectivity would feel different degrees and kinds of attachment, the same people would feel different in different times, locations and situations and some people would feel that they belong to particular collectivity while others would construct them as being outside those collectivity boundaries and vice versa” (Yuval-Davis, 2011: 200)
This is why at work it matters that people know I’m clever; why it matters that my friends remember I’m a vegetarian; and why I get annoyed when I visit my parents and Mum and Dad still can’t remember that I don’t like trifle and I never bloody have.
Tess Hadley’s novel is brilliant at bringing this all together. She has a way of explaining how we simultaneously annoy and love our family, how class and geographical location matter and that the world is changing in ways related to and aside from the past.
Hadley, T. (2015) The Past London: Vintage Fiction
Yuval-Davis, N. (2011) The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations London: Sage