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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Silk Brocade" by Tessa Hadley

Story: "Silk Brocade" by Tessa Hadley

Issue: July 27, 2015

Rating: $/Meh

Review: Seeing a Tessa Hadley story on The New Yorker's table of contents does not tend to raise my pulse; her tales tend to be ornate, slow-moving, albeit well-crafted, ones in which nothing much happens (which is not a problem, this is literature) and in which the change that goes on inside the main character is so subtle, if it even happens, that the story would bear re-reading at least once in order to grasp its significance. I'm of the opinion that an author -- any author -- is lucky if a reader draws their eyes across her writing even once, let alone many times, especially in a short story, and therefore there's not a lot of time for deep subtleties and hidden messages and emotional tremors so slight they can barely be perceived.

However, I have to give credit where it's due and say that this story "moved" a bit more than Hadley's usual fare. Set mostly in England in the early 1950s (an era which has launched some incredible literature), the story focuses on brief period in the lives of two roomates, Ann and Kit, in their mid-20s who own and operate a dressmaking shop. Ann is cool, instrospective, cautious. Kit has a bit more obvious joie de vivre and perhaps less intelligence. Ann is the typical Tessa Hadley character with another 10 years packed onto her; the whispy, bookish, pretty, shy, day-dreaming girl who grows up into the intelligent, self-possessed, if a bit peevish young adult, navigating the real world with a healthy dose of suspicion and scorn but not without the capacity for hope and imagination.

Ann's sense of herself and her upbringing is challenged when a dowdy girl she knew in elementary school comes into the dress shop to have a dress made for her wedding. Not only does this ruffle Ann's feathers -- the dowdy girl is getting married and not she -- but the fiance is from a wealthy, old-money family. The four of them -- Ann, Kit, Ms. Dowdy & fiance -- have a picnic in the park that the fiance owns, and some conversational subtleties are exchanged, someone gets offended. The end.

Though again, nothing really "happens" in this story, there is something truly fascinating about Hadley's picnic scene in this story. Something about the mood she sets and the details she captures, filtered in close third-person through Ann's well-honed (if jaundiced) observers eye.

And somehow that afternoon they achieved that miraculous drunkeness you get only once or twice in a lifetime, brilliant and without consequences, not peaking and subsiding but running weightlessly on and on. 

Mixed rating because, though I must doff my cap to Hadley's sentence crafting abilities and her creation of bright, gauzy memories of picnics in parks in long ago times, I felt the urge to skim over paragraphs many times. Hadley's characters and stories are written with some type of reader in mind, but not me.

I think what saves this story from a double Meh is the nice time-traveling tie-in that serves as a sort of epilogue to the body of the story, tying it all together by showing Ann's daughter at the same age, in 1972, having a related experience with a young man.


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