‘Sunstroke’ by Tessa Hadley

The sunstroke that gives Tessa Hadley’s wonderful story of the promise and perils of a summer day its title is both literal—a little girl comes down with a fever after playing outside all day—and metaphoric. It could refer to the light beating its way through the leaves of a tree in the shade of which the two main characters, old friends Rachel and Janie, now in their early thirties with fading careers and three kids each, set up camp on a stolen day at the seaside. Or to the pulsations of sensuality that course through each of the women, aware as they are of inhabiting that “piquant moment of change when the outward accidents of flesh are beginning to be sharpened from inside by character and experience.” Or the interruption into orderly lives by the arrival of an unmarried friend.

But while the child recovers quickly, the adults are more easily knocked off their equilibrium. Rachel’s husband, Sam, is a writer, but Janie’s partner has never been able to read past the second chapter: at every moment, the man thinks, the book diverts into thickets of cultural allusions; there isn’t any room for anything to happen. Hadley is no Sam; even though her canvas is small, plenty happens in her story. The events aren’t dramatic—the women exchange confidences; the men overcome awkwardness by smoking up; a couple kiss in the dark. But they promise to be consequential. Yet the consequences aren’t the ones the characters expect. Everyone in the story is on the verge of getting something they think they want, but then they pull back, unsure, finding themselves staring at the possibility of another life, in equal parts excitement and distaste. (Everyone except the children; they take full advantage of the largesse of the glorious Somerset day.)

Hadley does her novelist character one better: she laces these events with oblique references to canonical literature—Virginia Woolf, Henry James—but so gracefully you can admire them or not as you like. In the end, the deepest pleasures of this wise story are its images of summer’s ease: the peace of the afternoon made deeper by the sight of the children’s toys strewn across the lawn; the light from a television silhouetting the heads of the children watching a movie; the sound of a bat stirring the velvety, sumptuous night air. These brushstrokes are Hadley’s masterstroke. Take a minute from your summer to revel in them.

Collected in Sunstroke, Jonathan Cape, 2007) Chosen by Dorian Stuber

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