Inheritance and intimacy are the themes of Tessa Hadley's The Past, a novel so evocative of summer and adolescence that to read it is to reexperience the deep languor and longing of those days. It's the story of four adult siblings who return to their childhood home in the English countryside for three weeks to decide whether to restore the crumbling vicarage where they were raised by their grandparents after their mother's death or sell it and risk losing their most precious memories.
The Cranes are Harriet, who in her 50s wonders whether it's too late for love; Alice, uninhibited and artistic; Fran, a teacher and mother of two; and Roland, an accomplished and confident philosophy professor. When they come together, they inevitably regress—turning once again into motherless children jockeying for each other's attention, reopening old wounds, and then scrambling to smooth things over. Two newcomers—Kasim, the son of Alice's ex-boyfriend, and Pilar, Roland's stylish Argentine bride—add sexual intrigue to the volatile mix.
For the reader, there is great pleasure in the micromoments of conflict followed by connection: "They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another's personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared."
The book's title hints at some momentous event lurking in the clan's history, one they need to comprehend in order to heal at last. Instead, we come to understand that the past—for them and for us—is merely yesterday's present: ordinary, at times beautiful, and tragic too, a complicated ghost hovering at the edges of our lives. And it is that revelation that elevates the novel, deepening our own understanding of what shapes us.