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In 'Bad Dreams,' Tessa Hadley Serves Up Satisfying Short Stories

May 16, 2017

This spring brings a bumper crop of short story collections, some introducing distinctive new writers, others strategically timed to tide us over the wait between an established author's novels. I've been enjoying a stack of these books, most notably by Haruki Murakami, Joshua Ferris, Penelope Lively, and Tessa Hadley. They're all worthwhile, but if pressed to recommend just one, it would be Hadley's Bad Dreams. Her meticulously observed, extraordinarily perceptive stories are as satisfying as Alice Munro's. Yes, Hadley is that good.

I'm well aware that even in a culture that packages snacks in 100-calorie packs and messages in 140-character Tweets, short stories can still be a hard sell, despite their bite-size convenience. Readers complain about the effort of climbing into each new story, only to be abruptly turned out just when they've settled in.

Let me reassure you that the ten tales in Hadley's book – seven of which were first published in The New Yorker — are instantly immersive, with opening lines like this: "When my marriage fell apart one summer, I had to get out of the little flat in Kentish Town, where I had been first happy and then sad." Unlike many short story writers, who serve up slices of life cut so thin you're left craving more, Hadley offers both rich complexity and satisfying closure — so you never feel as if you've been precipitously evicted.

While Hadley's six novels, including The London Train and The Past, afford more room for ingenious structural inventiveness, her stories often span as many years as her longer-form work. She's especially drawn to instantly regretted moments of lost innocence, or subtly life-altering experiences that her characters only come to understand decades later — if at all.

In the title story, which concerns the power of both words and silence, an avid 9-year-old reader decides not to share a dream that has awakened her – a distressing epilogue to a favorite book – because "Once the words were said aloud, she would never be rid of them; it was better to keep them hidden." She distracts herself with an innocent nocturnal prank, which, unknown to her, her mother erroneously attributes to an act of spite by her husband – but opts not to mention. The mother's silence around this incident compounds her daughter's, and turns out to be far more damaging.

Hadley evokes the awkward, "crucifying" shyness and conflicted feelings of adolescent girls with delicate precision. In "One Saturday Morning," 10-year-old Carrie is upset to learn that a former neighbor's wife has died suddenly. "Carrie took everything to heart," Hadley writes. "She was earnest and susceptible, suffering easily. But it wasn't exactly pity for Helen Smith or her husband or children that overwhelmed her as she knelt in her bedroom. It was something more selfish and protective. She wished fiercely that she'd never learned about Helen's death."

Other characters seek to shed their sheltered innocence, with mixed results. The young wife who's moved out of her Kentish town flat in "Experience" tries to seduce a blatantly unsuitable man: "I wanted to cross the threshold and be initiated into real life. My innocence was a sign of something maimed or unfinished in me."

"Abduction," a standout in a book of standouts, involves a bored 15-year-old girl's disturbing sexual initiation back in the 1960s, when she's picked up on a lark by three Oxford University students high on booze and drugs. As in several other tales, Hadley heightens our sense of foreboding when her heroines open their doors – or themselves — to strangers whose intentions seem murky at best. We understand what happened to Jane more clearly than she does, for she keeps it safely "sealed in a compartment in her thoughts" for decades, even through marriage. "And in a way she never assimilated the experience, though she didn't forget it either," Hadley writes. The boy, she adds in a coda that bursts the ordinarily confined timeline of short fiction, forgot the incident entirely.

Partly through the legerdemain of such jumps in time, Hadley's stories encompass far more than a short story should be able to contain. Characters – or at least readers – gain perspective by either zooming forward or back decades. A woman shaken by a recent battle with cancer deflects the advances of a lonely young man — and recalls her miserable wedding night in the 1970s with her acid-amped first husband. In doing so, she comes to realize something fundamental about herself: "Because of her background, or perhaps just because of her intrinsic nature, there were certain levels of experience she would never be able to attain; she would never break out of the bounds of her reasonable self."

In Bad Dreams, Tessa Hadley explores what happens when her characters push those bounds.

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