The energy in a Tessa Hadley novel typically flows from a character’s unvoiced longing or suppressed desire, gestured at in flashback over the course of a present-day narrative seamlessly encompassing the previous half-century, as in 2015’s The Past or 2019’s Late in the Day, titles that sum up the mood, if not the excitement, of her work.
At first glance, Free Love breaks with all that. It takes us from 1967 into 1968 in the company of a flighty middle-aged mother of two, Phyllis, who quits married life in the stockbroker belt with a Foreign Office high-up after falling for a mouthy young dinner guest, Nicky, the would-be revolutionary son of family friends working in oil. An after-dinner search for a child’s missing sandal supplies the pretext for a clinch in the dusk; soon, Phyllis is knocking on the door of Nicky’s rundown flat in eye-openingly multicultural west London every Wednesday, under cover of visiting her father in Leamington Spa.
If there’s folly here, it’s part of the novel’s trick to tempt us to see it as belonging only to Phyllis, when the tangled roots of the situation truly lie elsewhere. As Hadley shifts fluently between the points of view of the various parties involved, the novel turns as much on long-buried family secrets as it does the yearnings of itchy-footed middle age. Each member of Phyllis’s household, including her children, Colette, 16, and Hugh, nine, know something the others don’t; we’re in the dark, too, thanks to a twist that rests on Hadley not quite playing fair when, halfway through, the novel first accesses the thoughts of her husband, Roger.
Hadley’s complex sentences are purring marvels of engineering, always weighted just so, cut-glass English with a continental inflection, fond of a comma splice, the dialogue marked with a dash. A brilliant writer of interiority who can also do great scenes, she has a gift, especially, for portraying the state of wanting to be wanted, or simply to be seen – a recurring longing in her fiction, whose characters often have cause to be careful what they wish for. We see Phyllis, aching and raw, privately exulting while getting the dinner on back at home; we see the electric thrill of a touch of hands between long-separated lovers; or Colette, drunk, wanting to go “all the way” with a man, “her consciousness swooping over her like a hawk”.
If she shares a theme with Martin Amis and Michel Houellebecq – the pros and cons of the sexual revolution – her method couldn’t be more different: not comic grotesque or authorial hypothesis, but patiently inhabiting her characters, leaving it to us to gauge how their actions are shaped by the weight of experience, a technique that can’t help but elicit readerly sympathy. Yes, Nicky’s political grandstanding puts us in mind of Citizen Smith – when Phyllis extols the virtues of the NHS, he replies: “Keeps the factory workers healthy, so they can work for longer” – but Phyllis’s awakening at his hands isn’t mocked, exactly; Hadley’s too subtle, too generous for that.
The climax supplies heady drama as well as the warm-hearted sense that no problem is too great to be worked through; as Roger tells a confidante, “It’s rather more like something out of a comic opera than Anna Karenina”. Still, we know he’s putting a brave face on it – we’ve seen him moping under Colette’s watchful eye – and he also isn’t yet fully aware exactly what’s going on, thanks to that aforementioned twist, a left turn back into familiar Hadley country of roads not taken.
It’s long become customary for Hadley’s reviewers to point out that she’s flagrantly undersung – never longlisted for the Booker, for instance – yet the emerging consensus this time round seems to be that Free Love is below par. Call me soft but I don’t see it: almost every page struck me anew with some elegant phrasing, feline irony or shrewdly sympathetic insight. The real wonder is that she does this pretty much every three years; it’s easy to become ungrateful.