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New Yorker Fiction Review: "One Saturday Morning" by Tessa Hadley

Issue: August 25th, 2014


Story: "One Saturday Morning"

Author: Tessa Hadley

Rating: Meh

Review: Tessa Hadley is adept at creating ornate little middle-class, 1960s/70s English worlds and peopling them with confused, curious, slightly precocious children and tweenagers and incompletely fleshed-out adult characters. It's as if all of her NYer stories (and maybe her whole oeuvre, I don't really know) could be taking place in the same neighborhood at the same time. While she's expert at creating these worlds she often falls flat when it comes to making anything significant happen within those worlds. We get a lot of detail about what the main character is thinking and feeling but when it finally comes to the plot or the "twist" or just the end-cap to the story, I'm usually left feeling disappointed. This story falls into that category.

With that said, I will admit I liked this story better than all the others I've read from her in the NYer (and that's the only place I've ever read her stuff). Why? Because Hadley manages to create some truly visceral tension; specifically, a scene in which the main character, a 10 year old girl named Carrie, is alone in her home with her parents' friend, a grown man in his mid-late 30s who is not a stranger to Carrie but not exactly familiar either.

I'm not sure exactly why Hadley put this moment in the story--it doesn't do anything to further the already meager (read: non-existent) plot--but it stands out. It's tense because, as Hadley is so great at inhabiting the minds of children, we the reader are able to get a real sense of the strange curiosity Carrie feels when she lets the man in her home, and we the reader are filled with that same curiosity. Not only are we reminded of the way we viewed adults and the adult world when we were children, but the adult in us is not quite sure what's going to happen and we can't help but be fearful that something inappropriate is going to happen. And so we share Carrie's relief when her parents come home.

The actual "plot" is that later Carrie catches the man and her mother engaged in a slightly untoward moment on the balcony of the apartment later that night. Nothing really happens out there on the balcony either, just a drunken attempted kiss and a sheepish recovery by Carrie's mom. I guess the fact that Carrie witnessed this is supposed to contribute to the foundation of her understanding, or mis-understanding, of the adult world, but I can't completely square this incident with her waiting alone with the man in her house the afternoon before. I just don't get it, and maybe there's nothing to get. So if this is just the cataloging of an awkward in interesting encounter in a 10 year old English girl's life...so be it, and well done, Ms. Hadley. But I'm still not going to feel shudders of delight when I see her name on the table of contents.

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