Tessa Hadley’s fifth novel, Clever Girl is the story of Stella. Stella is born into the grey middle of the twentieth century, with the Second World War devastation ‘softened and naturalised after two decades’ but still present in the Bristol streets in which she grows up. A memorable opening scene involves Stella’s childhood exploration into the outside world alone, wandering through these war-scarred streets, where she finds an ‘improbable slew of buttons’ in a myriad of colours and styles, nestling like a miracle birth in the barrenness of the cracked paving. This early exploration – its minor everyday wonder illuminated with a writerly tenderness for juxtaposition and poignant detail – is the first in a series of escapes that Stella makes throughout the novel. Later, she makes a hasty departure from the house where she’s working as a live-in nanny, and later still she takes impromptu nocturnal flights, leaving her young sons sleeping.
However, Stella’s is a close orbit: she always returns. Unlike other characters in her life, especially male ones, whose escapes are permanent: her father is ‘supposed to be dead’ but she knows that he left when she was young; her first boyfriend, and the father of her first child, disappears to America after an uncomfortable revelation. Stella is more freighted by responsibility, although the novel’s success lies in the delicate interplay between risk and responsibility – the opposite yet twinned tugs of staying and going. The story follows its own orbit, with Stella as childhood escapee travelling to the stables where she takes riding lessons, and then an adult Stella running away from her husband to clamber bareback onto his daughter’s horse, wearing only a vintage nightdress.
Stella’s cleverness is not, in the end, what shapes her life. As Hadley explains in interview, once you become a mother, ‘your cleverness isn’t much use. You need to be loving, and good and dutiful’. The book is about the rumble-onwards of life, with little chance for regret, but a glimpse of ‘what could have been’ nonetheless. Schooling derailed by a teenage pregnancy, Stella drifts through various, less-than-ideal situations, from the close uncomfortableness of her aunt’s house, to the communal house that she shares with students she meets in the cafe where she’s working. It’s here that she becomes pregnant with her second child, although his father is killed in dramatic circumstances; another unexpected kink in the puzzling – yet oddly ordinary – fabric of Stella’s life.
Un her review in The Guardian, Elaine Showalter finds some of the more ‘prosaic’ elements of the novel frustrating. Despite the dances with exoticism – the brush with elite universities and avant garde authors, the hippy commune with its brutal slash of murder – Stella eventually marries an older man and becomes an occupational therapist. Showalter argues that while real life certainly includes such drastic career changes, ‘in a novel, where the reader counts on an accumulation of details to build up the inner life of a character, this last-minute switch seems arbitrary, capricious and unproductive.’ Kate Kellaway also feels slightly ambivalent about Hadley’s overall success, claiming that ‘although we become intimate with the details of [Stella’s] life, she seems always to be partly unavailable as a character’. Stella is something of a shadow in the narrative, and its difficult to like her, or even to feel as if you have a solid sense of her at all.
However, I felt that this sense of detachedness, which leaves Stella tantalisingly apart, even from the reader, enacts an important feeling of cool isolation that is central to the novel. This is paired with an intelligent evocation of the sometimes cruel, often mundane, and always surprising, meander of life. The fact that this is an enjoyable experience rests on Hadley’s tight, incisive prose; we’re deeply entwined with Stella’s inner monologue.
One of the questions that Kellaway is left asking of the story, and of Stella, is ‘did being clever matter in the end?’ Rather than an inappropriate title thrust on the novel by a publisher, as Kellaway suggests, I thought that Clever Girl was actually an interesting and apt title for a slippery tale. The title is perhaps part mocking, part a haunting, empty possibility; the whisper of unfulfilled promises, and the cold hard smack of reality against the dreamy multiplicity of childhood possibilities.