Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Family Bonds Are Never Bland In 'The Past'

A quartet of siblings and assorted spouses, lovers and friends all spend a holiday in the English family summer house they'll have to sell. Do you think everything will go just swell for those three weeks? Or will tensions simmer, and secrets break out of storage as quarrels, tears and fatal attractions roil the old house in the summer heat? Tessa Hadley's novel The Past has already been praised in Britain, and now it's out in the U.S. She tells NPR's Scott Simon that she loves to set stories in old houses. "A house is like a metaphor. Before you even start, you don't even have to work on it. There is a building that's had a family in it and they've been there for a couple of generations now and they gather in those rooms, and on the walls are certain pictures, and everything is sort of helping you to make your story."

Interview Highlights

On the differences between the siblings — Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland, and how they drive the plot

Speaking as a writer, of course, if you gather four siblings — three sisters — in a house, and you want to do something with them, you're going to be working with how different they are from one another, as well as working with what binds them. But everything interesting is in the difference, isn't it?

On whether her novels start with characters or stories

It often starts with a scene, and it did. This one did — very, very vividly. And I've no idea what strange place in my subconscious this surfaced from. But I saw the scene where this slightly sad and solitary Harriet totally accidentally witnessed her brother making love to his new wife. I mean not quite literally witness, but a door is open, she catches sight of reflection, she can hear things. And she's sort of excruciated, the way one is when those silly accidents happen.

[Roland's] a philosopher, and a bit of a man about the scene and a bit of a film critic, and he's brought his very attractive, brand new wife to the house with him to meet his family. And she's the catalyst that in a novel you drop into a steady scene to precipitate something completely new.

On Roland's thoughts about "mutual incomprehension" being stimulating in a marriage.

There's another bit where I'm kind of on the same theme which really interests me, where I go back into the past and the grandparents of my four siblings are also having one of those moments. And it sort of says, 'the woman had thought that when she was married she would be intimately known to somebody and intimately know him.' And actually, to save yourself inside a marriage, you need layers of guardedness, you need to keep yourself apart. And maybe that's just me. But if I watch married couples, or study my own marriage, or study the marriage of those close to me, it seems to me that is a part of surviving it: being attracted to the unknown in the other person and not trying to colonize it or wanting be colonized, or sort of wanting to become one country, if you know what I mean.

We need it on record that people also love each other and then hate each other and then love each other again.

On knowing this family will be back together the next summer

I think that's a good subject for writing about because, really, as many families work as don't work. Or they don't work some of the time but lots of the time they do. And I suppose the Western world went through a deep disenchantment with the family in the mid-20th century for very good reasons. You know, it can be an extremely oppressive institution. But actually, I think we're probably in a period of recuperating it now. We love it. We know how it counts for our well-being. So I kind of love to write about families getting on together — but not blandly ... we need it on record that people also love each other and then hate each other and then love each other again.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit