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Free Love by Tessa Hadley review: life, lust and macaroni cheese in 1960s London

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 19/01/2022 Lucy Scholes
Book review Free Love by Tessa Hadley novel fiction - Ron Case © Ron Case Book review Free Love by Tessa Hadley novel fiction - Ron Case

Few contemporary novelists write about their characters’ inner worlds with the finely filigreed but plain-spoken acuity that Tessa Hadley brings to her work; the free-indirect style of her prose – reminiscent of Henry James, but with an uncluttered cleanness that feels decidedly modern – accessing roving, rich depths. Modernity is key in Hadley’s new novel, Free Love. Set in London in 1967, it’s the story of a bourgeois housewife and mother’s sexual and intellectual awakening; and the fallout her bid for freedom entails.

A spare but exact list of sounds on the opening page immaculately sums up 40-year-old Phyllis Fisher’s well-heeled, suburban world: “the steady relieving splash of a hose in a herbaceous border, confiding clack of shears, distant thwack of balls from the tennis club, broken sharp cries of children playing, fragrance of cut grass and roasting meat, jiggling of ice in the first weekend gin and tonics”. Phyllis is “pleased with her life.”

But this is before the arrival – that evening for dinner – of Nicky Knight, the 20-something-year-old son of a family friend. Awkward and ungainly, with “nicotine-stained fingers” and anti-capitalist ideas, Nicky is everything Phyllis’s middle-aged, respectable civil servant, war veteran husband is not. And she falls head over heels in lust.

“If he won’t have me then I’ll die,” she thinks. “Although she also knew that she wouldn’t really die,” Hadley adds dryly, “she’d go home and put macaroni cheese in the oven. And that would be worse.” Hadley doesn’t just write with compassion – exploring her characters’ most shameful, contemptible urges without judgement – she also incisively conveys both the farce and the gravity of the situation. While acknowledging that the consummation of the affair isn’t as “moodily sophisticated, like a French film” as Phyllis expected it to be, Hadley still treats her passion and pain with the utmost respect. Forcing herself, between assignations, through the domestic routine, Phyllis feels a distress “so extreme that she could only force it down under the surface of the passing minutes, like drowning something struggling for its life.”

Bravely, Phyllis abandons her family, and moves into Nicky’s grimy bedsit in Ladbroke Grove, then a bohemian enclave and home to more “coloured faces” than the sheltered suburbanite has ever before seen in England. Thenceforth, the three major literary influences cited by Hadley – Sam Selvon, Margaret Drabble and Nell Dunn – are clearly in evidence, beginning with the Grove and the Gate of The Lonely Londoners (the Gate – as in Notting Hill – is white, Phyllis’s black landlord Sam explains, while the Grove – as in Ladbroke – is black). That Phyllis, pregnant with Nicky’s baby, arrives at her local GP surgery well prepared, her National Health card in hand, is a nice twist on the single mother protagonist of Drabble’s The Millstone (1965) turning up without hers. Later, Hadley draws on the portraits of factory work in Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963) and Poor Cow (1967).

Book review Free Love by Tessa Hadley novel fiction © Provided by The Telegraph Book review Free Love by Tessa Hadley novel fiction

All these nods to 1960s originals don’t quite work in Hadley's favour: in their company, this modern imitation looks second-rate. Still, if Hadley isn’t entirely successful at evoking the spirit of the era, Free Love certainly pulls off the period details – with its precise, carefully-chosen signifiers, like an Elizabeth David cookbook and the bulbs of garlic brought home from holidays in France. It’s only when she resorts to broad stroke references to the revolutionary spirit of the age (“amazing things are happening”, Nicky tells Phyllis) that the faintest touch of artifice descends. And, although her secondary characters – especially Barbara, a nurse from Grenada, who lives in Nicky’s building and with whom Phyllis strikes up a friendship; and Sam – aren’t without texture and subtlety, ultimately their role is to illustrate Phyllis’s development rather than to exist as fully-fledged individuals in their own right.

There’s much to admire and relish here, especially the complexities of the uncomfortable rivalry between Phyllis and her 15-year-old daughter Colette: “this new continent of experience, with its dizzily altered perspectives and intoxicating freedoms, should have been trackless – yet her mother’s footprint was on the sand everywhere ahead of her”. Nevertheless, Free Love isn’t Hadley’s finest work; perhaps because she’s at her best in precisely the more traditional milieu that Phyllis has escaped; one in which the family unit is tested – failing marriages, rebelling children – but ultimately holds sway. I say this with no condescension: Hadley is a master in her field, and it take bravery to push beyond one’s comfort zone.

Free Love is published by Jonathan Cape at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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