‘The Surrogate’ by Tessa Hadley

The intelligence Hadley brings to her work is never showy or flouncy – she’s an exquisitely steely writer – both muscular and piercing, cooly authoritative too. ‘The Surrogate’, written in 2003, is perhaps a little looser than some of Hadley’s other stories (very occasionally, the prose feels somewhat less honed) but it’s structurally brilliant – and it does what Hadley does best: it welcomes in the female body, taking happy ownership of all of its fluctuating unpredictability. Clara, an undergraduate student, has fallen in love with Patrick Hammett, her English lecturer. “His looks were a power,” she tells us. “I felt physically ill.” The central section of the narrative pivots around a series of fantasies – each involving the object of Clara’s devotions, Patrick, and each an artfully constructed story of its own (“Nothing could happen in them that was absurdly improbable or out of character”). Every imagining is furnished with youthful, romantic detail: a “cathedral wood”, a “gate…washed silvery by the rain.” But then Clara meets Dave – Patrick’s physical double, the ‘surrogate’ of the story’s title (or is he?) – and fantasies of a different kind gallop over those first muddled dreams. The ending – with its shocking, clever inversion, its unabashed statement of philosophical intent – makes for a deeply satisfyingly whole.

First published in The New Yorker, September 2003, and available to subscribers to read here; and collected in Sunstroke and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 2007

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