Book Review: Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley


I was introduced to Tessa Hadley’s writing at an event organised by The Folio Prize for Fiction which I attended earlier in the year celebrating Women’s day.  Tessa Hadley along with others read from her own work and discussed her personal female writing heroes.

‘Clever Girl’ is Tessa Hadley’s fourth novel. It tells the story of Stella’s life from childhood to middle age. It begins with Stella as the child of a single mum in Bristol. It takes us through her turbulent teenage years and into single parenthood  as the mother of two boys from different partners. She lives in a bedsit as a teenage mum, becomes a housekeeper to a middle class family, lives intermittently with a friend, lives in a communal house and eventually marries. Throughout all this she has an off relationship with books and learning that help shapes her person.

The beauty of this story is partly Stella’s resilience in dealing with poverty, broken relationships and death. It is also the development of her character; flaws and all as she makes her way in the world. Despite the messiness of Stella’s life she has the ability to create order within it.

The book deals with the influence that early events or relationships can have in setting the tone for life. There are a number of characters that weave seamlessly in and out of Stella’s life and the story itself.

The writing is clever and astute and but with an elegance in the way it manages to particularly convey the depth and intensity of the early stages of a relationship.

“The shape of the long empty room seemed the shape of our shared imagination, spacious and open to everything”

“Each of us wanted the other to be the darkness listening”

There is a natural flow to the writing. Vivid pictures are painted without the excessive use of words or adjectives.

“Summer is thick everywhere, a sleepy viscous, sensuous emanation; hot blasts of air, opaque with pollen from overblown suburban gardens, ripe with wafts from bins and dog mess”

“I was the first to break the skin of the day” is one of my favourite lines in the novel; perfect imagery to illustrate that moment when no one else in the house is yet up.

This book kept me reading late into the night. Not because of its dramatic content, but because I really enjoyed the fluidity of the words and the pleasure that gave to reading it. It left me wondering why it had taken me until now to discover Tessa Hadley’s writing.


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