After the Funeral and Other Stories

Image of After the Funeral and Other Stories
Release Date: 
July 11, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“Hadley’s understanding of her characters is complemented by her clear and lucid prose.”

Childhood and its often abrupt segue into adolescence are at the heart of many of the stories in Tessa Hadley’s latest collection. The title story, “After the Funeral,” sets the tone:

“After the funeral, the two little girls, aged nine and seven, accompanied their grief-stricken mother home . . . All the girls’ concentration was on their mother who couldn’t cope.”

Some years later, an attempt to help by Charlotte, the older daughter, now an adolescent, brings about the story’s shocking ending.

Parents are unreliable, although mothers, being more present, have the greater impact. A couple of mothers seem to belong to the cohort of famously uninvolved seventies parents.

Janey, the 17-year-old narrator of “My Mother’s Wedding,” comments:

“It was never going to be the ordinary kind of wedding. My mother didn’t do anything ordinary. . . . She and Patrick would drink Fen’s home-made mead from a special cup, then smash it; the clinching moment would come when they got to take off their clothes at sunset and immerse themselves in the pond while everyone sang.”

And to top it off, Patrick, the groom, is closer to Janey’s age than her mother’s.

In “Funny Little Snake” a reluctant stepmother confronts her stepdaughter’s bohemian mother in a semi squat in London:

“A wide door on the first floor, framed in ornamental plasterwork, stood open. You could see how it once opened onto the best rooms at the heart of the whole house: now it had its own Yale lock and was painted purple and orange . . . A woman came clattering down the stairs . . . in a long low-cut white dress and white patent leather boots. . . . ‘Oh Christ is it today? Shit! Is that the kid? Welcome home, honeypot.’”

The two women are connected more by the silent child, whose dolls are scraps of cloth with faces drawn on them, than by their relationships with her father.

Hadley is particularly acute when it comes to the sudden chill of adolescence. In “Cecilia Awakened,” a holiday trip to Florence makes the teen-age Cecilia see her parents for what they are: ordinary and flawed. While in “Mia,” a teenage girl becomes the unwilling recipient of an older woman’s confidences.

Childhood is the backdrop of several stories that don’t involve actual children. In “The Bunty Club,” three middel-aged sisters return to the family house when their mother’s final illness puts her in the hospital. Collectively and individually, they wander the garden and the familiar rooms.  The youngest finds a shoebox full of souvenirs of the club they named after the children’s magazine they were not allowed to have. Its purpose was to harass their stern parents: hiding their father’s slippers, digging up his newly planted potatoes (“He always thought it was a fox”) and jamming their mother’s knitting machine.          

In other stories, the kind of chance that happens often in fiction and even more often in real life, calls everything into question. In “Dido’s Lament,” Lynette is almost knocked over in the tube station by an oblivious man. Following him in a fury she discovers he is her ex-husband and is catapulted into his new life.

A sudden death in “Friends” completely reverses the characters’ plans, while, in “The Other One,” a surprise meeting reframes the family myths that surround the death of Heloise’s father when she was twelve. “He was supposed to be at a sociology conference in Germany, only the accident happened in France and there were two young women in the car with him. One of them was his lover, it turned out in the days and weeks after the crash, and the other one was his lover’s friend.” Or so Heloise had always been told.

Life, Hadley shows us, is a web of chance: who our parents are, whom we meet, whom we love, whom we marry. We are formed by chance and sometimes liberated by it. The characters are so hauntingly real on the page that these lightly plotted stories are compelling page turners.

Hadley’s understanding of her characters is complemented by her clear and lucid prose. Some stories may be stronger than others, but there’s not a dud in the lot.