What happened to her? Where is she, we want to know.We wonder this as we read the latest from British novelist Tessa Hadley, whose Clever Girl (Harper, March) is narrated by Stella, who details the events of her life, from early childhood on. A first person narrator is of course not uncommon, but Hadley’s approach is a bit unusual as the narration occasionally shifts into the present tense, reminding us that somewhere Stella sits, an older woman looking back on her life and telling her story, from her girlhood in Bristol in the 1950s and 60s to the present.
This literary device is part of what creates the tension in the book. The novel is somewhat episodic, true to real life in its retelling of the ups and downs experienced by Stella. There is no climactic moment that the book moves toward (and moments that could be climactic are almost always a bit of a letdown in their retelling). The tension, then, evolves out of this distance between the character of Stella in the story, and Stella the narrator.
As she looks back on her past, the present day Stella—we imagine her sitting somewhere drinking a cup of tea as she tells her story, older and wiser than the girl in the scenes she describes—takes on an air of omniscience. She has, for example, surprising insights into the other characters, which seem to come more from Hadley the author than Stella the character. For example, Stella says of her stepfather, “His judgment – not of abstractions like immigration and taxes, but knowing how to hold himself, when to be still – is unexpectedly delicate and true. I can see it now, from this distance.” A few pages later, Stella describes with certainty a scene that transpires between her mother and younger brother while she is outside waiting for the school bus.
This omniscience seems to be evidence of Stella’s cleverness; she stands apart from the other characters, and has something more to tell us. As the character ages throughout the novel, however, her certainty begins to unravel. She couldn’t relay her feelings about a tragedy that befalls her, because she doesn’t know. Speaking of one of a handful of times when she flees from her responsibilities, leaving her children with family, she says, “…I wasn’t responsible, I hardly knew what I was doing.” Stella may still be clever, but she develops into a rather fumbling adult, making the same mistakes that we all do.
This perhaps makes Stella a difficult character to like. Indeed, a review in The Guardian published last year after the book’s UK release identifies Stella as a character who is difficult to warm to, not someone readers can befriend. Stella’s keen observations—or Hadley’s, as relayed through Stella—of other characters and the world around her are, however, remarkable in their beauty and strangeness. The moon, for example, is “silver-blue, curled like a comma or a tiny embryo, snug in its blurry ring of frost like a moon in a cave.” Of her first love, Stella tells us, “His glancing, eagerly amused look around him – drinking everything in, shaking the long hair back from around his face – was like a symbol for morning itself.” These kinds of insights carry the book; Stella’s failings as a narrator and character lie in her inability to turn that same eye toward herself, and to show herself clearly to the reader. In that way, though, she is just like the rest of us.