‘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

‘The Other One’ by Tessa Hadley

To bear out my whole ‘collecting stories jumble sale-style’ thing, here’s one I chanced upon a couple of years ago. I never read the fiction in The New Yorker. I don’t know… it’s just so often Ooh, here’s a story about a young American boy whose school diorama project causes his lawyer father to set off on a surreal and life-changing trip into the desert. Please. But this is from another world entirely, this remarkable story of a now adult daughter piecing together the fragmentary memory of her father’s death in a car accident. Such lightness of touch in how Hadley manages the emotional currency of the piece. Such a gift for plotting – I photocopied the thing and highlighted each paragraph in different colours to better understand (and learn from) its complex chronology. This is the only thing I’ve ever read by Hadley: an oversight I’ll correct soon. (GK)

Published in The New Yorker, May 2020, and available to read online here

‘An Abduction’ by Tessa Hadley

Another opening story, with another superlative first line: “Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.” One of the truisms of short stories is that every word has to earn its keep, but Hadley – who is surely one of the finest short story writers living – takes this to new levels, forcing even her conjunctions to do a job of work. Look at her choice of “and” in this sentence, rather than the expected “but”: the “and” makes the lack of noticing just as great a crime as the abduction itself. It also implies a great deal about Jane’s circumstances, which Hadley brings vividly to life in just a few resonant sentences: it’s the 1960s, Jane is home (Surrey!) for the summer from boarding school, and the sun is relentlessly shining. “It wasn’t acceptable in Jane’s kind of family,” we’re told (note the passive tense, the use of “acceptable” and “kind of”, all of which are redolent with class associations) “to complain about good weather, yet the strain of it told on them, parents and children: they were remorselessly cheerful, while secretly they longed for rain.”
Bored, hot, listless and frustrated, when a car of university students pulls up beside her she agrees, almost unaccountably, to their offer of a lift. and passes a revelatory 24 hours with them, before slotting apparently seamlessly back into her own life. As she grows older, though, the seams begin to fray; the event that was accommodated at the time turns out to be too vast and jagged to be subsumed, and comes, in later years, to take on an almost totemic significance: to represent for her the possible other; the life unlived. It’s a painful scenario, plangently played out, but the real wallop comes in the final paragraphs, which reveal with lancing matter-of-factness that the boy to whom she lost her virginity that night “has no memory [of her] at all”. “He’s had too much happiness in his life since, too much experience,” the story concludes. “He’s lost that fine-tuning that could hold on to… the girl’s cold skin and her naivety, her extraordinary offer of herself without reserve, the curtains sweeping the floor in the morning light. It’s all just gone.” It’s a masterpiece, this one, almost too painful to tangle with. Loss and longing again, and not a word wasted.

First published in Bad Dreams and Other Stories, Vintage, 2018

‘The Surrogate’ by Tessa Hadley

As a reader I appreciate it when a writer seems to deliver a secret message, underneath the words of the story, to me, their reader. That’s what I get from Hadley’s tale of sexual fantasy and its outcomes. This story seems above all an account of the act of writing and the act of reading. All the stories I have chosen for this personal anthology could be interpreted as such, I think – in one way or another they all describe the relationship between writer and reader, a relationship which serves as surrogate for the relationship between any fellow humans in the act of making sense of our existence. Hadley may explore this relationship in a very different way to Kafka or Grudova, say, but underneath all these writers’ contortions, the same issues burn below the surface.

First published in The New Yorker, September 2003, and available to read online here, or hear Curtis Sittenfield read it here. Collected in Sunstroke and other stories, Jonathan Cape, 2007

‘Dido’s Lament’ by Tessa Hadley

This zips along, charged with awkward tension. A masterclass in the small gesture or detail that unravels a whole realm of fraught, teeming feelings; it’s a love-hate-old-love story about incompatible people sharing history, and all the burdensome nostalgia and regret that entails.

First published in The New Yorker, August 2016. Available online here

‘Cecilia Awakened’ by Tessa Hadley

I’m a great admirer of Tessa Hadley’s work, and I was grateful that I didn’t have to choose between her short stories! I could simply pick her latest work. The story immediately took me back to being twelve again. She captures exactly those feelings of excruciating embarrassment and painful awkwardness that every teenager has. Everything is wrong: your body, your clothes, your surroundings, other people and, worst of all, your parents. This is Cecilia’s awakening, and it happens overnight. But there are many different kinds of ‘awakening’ in life: some of those ‘awakenings’ happen after reading a great short story at exactly the right time, when the story unfolds and makes the world seem a little clearer, a little more bearable.

In The New Yorker, September 17, 2018

‘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

‘The Eggy Stone’, by Tessa Hadley

An exquisite short story – exquisite in its shortness, and its completeness. Hadley gives us the famous short-storian “glimpse” (c.f. VS Pritchett, David Miller), only here it is a glimpse into the past, a shutter opening onto childhood and then abruptly slamming shut again. A school camping trip to the seaside leads to a brief, intense friendship between the narrator and the Cool Girl of the class – a friendship entirely predicated on the Eggy Stone, picked up at random from the beach and turned by the two girls into a small-scale cult. They sing to it, sleep with it, and pass it between them like a talisman. There is something sinister in all this: the story, you think, could easily end up like ‘Shredni Vashtar’, with an act of terrible violence, but it doesn’t. The cult of the Eggy Stone ends as suddenly as it started, and the friendship melts away like snow in springtime, leaving nothing behind.

(in Sunstroke, also available on the Guardian website here)