After the Funeral and Other Stories
- By Tessa Hadley
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Samantha Neugebauer
- July 27, 2023
This exquisite collection explores the role of fantasy in our pedestrian lives.
The 12 stories in After the Funeral, Tessa Hadley’s fourth collection, are tonics for our news-laden, overstimulated times. Like a favorite cat sitting on you, these short tales are at once intelligent and twisty, cozy and intimate. Even while you’re with them, you’re already wishing for them not to leave.
Death in the literal and metaphorical sense touches many of these narratives; nevertheless, the dominant throughline is the way in which fantasies and imagination shape and enchant our lives, even as adults. In the titular story, two young girls and their mother make a new life for themselves after the passing of their husband and father. What’s clear from the start is that the daughters must take up the responsibilities of adulthood that their mother casts aside. It’s not a story of abuse or neglect, however, but rather one that showcases how the way we narrativize our lives can influence how we actually live them, for better or worse.
At one point, we’re told that the mother, a former flight attendant with an emotional and romantic temperament, used to play “aeroplanes” with the girls, put on her “syrupy, posh air-hostess voice,” and arrange their dining room chairs like a plane cabin. Later, when the mother is courting a married doctor, we see her enacting a similar kind of performance, and the man is predictably charmed. By this time, the girls are too old for games, but as they get to know and like the doctor, they begin playing along.
In “Cecilia Awakened,” one of the best offerings, a 15-year-old British girl travels with her parents to Florence, where she has “not a sexual awakening, or not exactly — rather an intellectual or imaginative one.” She realizes she and her family are tourists and that “the lives of the people they encountered on holiday must continue for the rest of the year while they were absent.” Previously, she’d loved these annual trips with her kind, older parents. She’d known locals could resent “other tourists…the ones who didn’t appreciate what they were seeing,” but now understands the Florentines might not be able to distinguish between a “discriminating” and an “undiscriminating” one. Simply put, she discovers she’s just like everyone else.
It’s hard to read this story and not think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room,” where the child speaker, perusing a National Geographic, grasps for the first time that she is a mortal human like all other people. What “Cecilia Awakened” suggests is that epiphanies such as these — each with their own distinct clarity and sense of loss — happen throughout our lives.
Yet we still narrativize away. In the aforementioned “After the Funeral,” Hadley shows us how this works in a sublime point-of-view change at the story’s end: We enter the head of the doctor, who has “awakened from a fever dream,” and become privy to his thoughts as he persuades himself that he’s a good person and that “everyone makes mistakes.” Hadley, like Alice Munro, is known for her abrupt, plot-altering POV shifts, and her talent for employing them is on full display here. Surrendering to these shifts — which leave you feeling like a child, bewildered and spellbound — is part of what makes reading Hadley so thrilling.
Like a lot of British writers, she probes the granular differences in class divisions and the consequences of social mobility much more honestly than her American counterparts. In “Men,” a woman is working as a manager in a fancy hotel (where her mother was once a maid) when her estranged sister arrives on the arm of a successful architect. The estranged sister is “tall and serene,” whereas the hotelier sister has “a little pasty face as soft as putty.” In this story and others, we see how beauty can change the course of a life.
Hadley is especially attuned to the way charisma and being a “clever talker” can enhance the aura of a man, even making his “ugliness…attractive” — something that doesn’t quite work the same for women. In “Mia,” protagonist Alison’s mother, a professor, “assured Alison that intelligence is what counted. But Alison used her intelligence to understand the poems and novels she read in English Literature, which told a different story.”
Literature’s uneven potency vis-à-vis shaping our realities also comes up in “Coda,” a pandemic tale. In it, the protagonist spends lockdown taking care of her elderly mother and reading Madame Bovary. Choosing between the surreality of quarantine and the unreality of the novel, she opts to dramatize her cloistered existence by injecting the sensual atmosphere of Flaubert’s masterpiece into her mundane days. Soon, an unknown neighborhood becomes her obsession, a fantasy lover who enlivens her prosaic life. What reader can’t relate?
In Tessa Hadley’s world, dreams, fantasies, and literature can all herald the onset of aesthetic experiences. And those experiences, in turn, remind us that reality feels a lot like Wonderland sometimes and that we all, like Alice, may need to sip Drink Me potions to navigate the narrow hallways of our lives.
Samantha Neugebauer is a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and New York University in Abu Dhabi. She is a senior editor for Painted Bride Quarterly and a regular contributor to the literary podcast Slush Pile.