Books by Tessa Hadley

A life well-written: Tessa Hadley's novels

Tessa Hadley is truly a writers' writer. For the past two decades, her short stories and novels have been admired by authors such as Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hilary Mantel and Anne Enright. Hadley writes about the quietly devastating drama of the everyday: lost ambition and unfolding love affairs, cross-generational trauma and the small histories that repeat themselves. Her quintessentially English books perfectly capture familiar moments you'd never thought to focus on before.

With eight novels, among them newcomer Free Love, and three collections of short stories, there's plenty to get stuck into - and this is a good order to read them in.

Bad Dreams and Other Stories (2017)

For those who would rather begin with short stories, Bad Dreams makes for a brilliant introduction to Hadley's writing. Strange, beautiful, uncannily true-to-life, these psychologically perceptive stories (as, indeed, all of her writing is) will whet your appetite for the longer novels. 

One of the best in the collection is ‘Experience’, about a young woman who finds herself housesitting for a woman she barely knows. Boundaries break as she slips further than she should into her absent host’s life – in the process becoming strangely drawn to a thoroughly unlikeable man.

Accidents in the Home (2002)

The opening pages of Hadley's first published novel, Accidents in the Home, include a family tree that spans the four generations encountered in this beautiful book. In under 250 pages, Hadley's debut entwines and uncovers these characters' lives as an unlikely affair binds together and wrenches apart two childhood friends, Clare and Helly. 

Hadley was in her mid-Forties when her debut was released, and you can sense a maturity in it that is difficult to find in younger authors' first work. She captures the unique exhaustion and loss of identity of early motherhood and the shifting tides of middle-age. Accidents in the Home manages to express, deftly, how families repeat the same mistakes and patterns over the years. Before she wrote novels, Hadley wrote short stories, and you can sense this heritage in this debut: each chapter seems to contain its own story. That she is so adept at bringing them together in a compelling and convincing read attests to Hadley's strengths.

Everything Will Be All Right (2003)

The good bones of Hadley's debut are fleshed out with panache and warmth in her second novel, Everything Will Be All Right - although if you feel tempted to make your own family tree in the inner cover, you'd be forgiven. 

In this ambitious and quietly devastating story, Hadley spans four generations from the wake of the Second World War to the present day, exploring the elements of life all too often overlooked by literature: the young pregnancies, the silent grief of a war widow, the everyday monotony of bringing up children and keeping a home. Everything Will Be All Right is largely a portrayal of womanhood and how society's expectation of it changes - and doesn't - over the decades. If you've encountered Hadley through Free Love, her most recent novel, Everything Will Be All Right makes for an interesting companion read, dwelling in the societal shift of the 1960s and examining its aftermath. 

Free Love (2022)

Hadley's latest novel may also be her greatest. It's certainly her most intimately drawn. Unusually for her, the author pinpoints the moment on the first page: "The year is 1967". What unfolds is a microcosm of the shifting cultures that transformed the Western World during that decade and beyond, in a dingy bedsit in West London. Housewife and mother Phyllis 'Phyl' Fischer cuts herself free of her apron strings to embark upon an affair with a man half her age, Nicky, a son of one of her husband's friends. But rather than focussing on the titillation or the scandal, Hadley uses the relationship as a means of interrogating the facades, fears and hopes we all must navigate. Free Love a must-read of a book.  

Late in the Day (2019)

One of Hadley's greatest strengths is her characterisation: the people in her books feel viscerally, keenly alive, to the extent that sometimes you may even find yourself reflected back in her pages. The details she choses to focus on are small but vital - the elastic band someone uses to tie back their hair, the feeling of a blouse against skin, the deep intimacy that comes with examining a reflection in a mirror. 

Late in the Day is one of Hadley's more recent novels - when her brilliant writing began to emerge into the mainstream. A portrait of four old friends, Zach and Lydia and Alex and Christine, that is so exquisitely and precisely drawn it can tighten the stomach.

Hadley teases out the nuances of the relationships that criss-cross between the two couples and the events that spiral out from Zach’s death at the beginning of the novel with such dexterity. The stories that well up from their earlier days in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties bring the seemingly cloudy present into sharp focus. Most of the novel is set between the back streets of Clerkenwell and North London, but it’s the scene in Venice that will stay with you once you've closed the book.

The Past (2015)

Hadley manages to conjure a setting like a magic trick: the homes in her books, from run-down flatshares to Arts and Crafts semis, stifled in suburbia, are so clearly executed that they shimmer in the readers' mind. 

The sprawling, tumbledown villa at the heart of The Past is the ultimate example of this. A book about memory, families and the things that make us, Hadley brings together four grown-up siblings, whose lives have gone in different directions, for one final holiday before they sell their grandparents' house. What should be an idyllic summer in the home they spent their childhood in turns into something more fraught - and unspoken. 

From this tinderbox, Hadley brings to the surface the simmering tensions that rise when people are forced into close proximity after years apart, the decades-old secret resentments and unspoken alliances, and of course the pull the past has on us all.

Sunstroke and Other Stories

More glorious short stories! And as ever with Tessa Hadley, apparently ordinary family life is somehow unsettled. Hadley seems a magician as she flits between viewpoints, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. She does this exceptionally well in the title story of this collection, ‘Sunstroke’. It’s a masterclass in the mess of relationships between husbands and wives, friends, husbands who are only friends because of their wives, the outsider. She is the best of short story writers, and so you know when she says "they tell each other everything, almost everything" those last two words are going to mean something quite important – and, of course, they do.

Clever Girl

Being clever isn’t everything, as Stella finds out in this unerringly good novel. Hadley is brilliant at capturing the gaps in between our dreams and reality and just as Stella seemingly escapes from a dull life with her mother and stepfather into the arms of Valentine, she finds her life not her own again when she gets pregnant and Val leaves her. This isn’t the last time that Stella will find her own actions almost irrelevant in determining the course of her life and in a world where self-determinism and a plan can often seem all-consuming, this is a refreshing perspective on what it means to live, to have dreams and – when you do achieve them, find they aren’t as expected.  

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

  • Free Love

  • From Tessa Hadley, bestselling author of Late in the Day and The Past, comes a compulsive new novel about one woman's sexual and intellectual awakening in 1960s London

    1967. While London comes alive with the new youth revolution, the suburban Fischer family seems to belong to an older world of conventional stability: pretty, dutiful homemaker Phyllis is married to Roger, a devoted father with a career in the Foreign Office. Their children are Colette, a bookish teenager, and Hugh, the golden boy.

    But when the twenty-something son of an old friend pays the Fischers a visit one hot summer evening, and kisses Phyllis in the dark garden after dinner, something in her catches fire. Newly awake to the world, Phyllis makes a choice that defies all expectations of her as a wife and a mother. Nothing in these ordinary lives is so ordinary after all, it turns out, as the family's upheaval mirrors the dramatic transformation of the society around them.

    With scalpel-sharp insight, Tessa Hadley explores her characters' inner worlds, laying bare their fears and longings. Daring and sensual, Free Love is a compulsive, irresistible exploration of romantic love, sexual freedom and living out the truest and most meaningful version of our lives.

    'She has such great psychological insights into human beings, which is rare. She is one of the best fiction writers writing today.' Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    'Tessa Hadley recruits admirers with each book. She writes with authority, and with delicacy: she explores nuance, but speaks plainly; she is one of those writers a reader trusts.' Hilary Mantel

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