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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever Novel Of Perceptiveness, 1 May 2013
This review is from: Clever Girl (Hardcover)
This novel originated from three short stories published in the 'New Yorker' in 2011. Tessa Hadley, after deliberation, decided to develop the life story of the heroine, Stella, from a child through to the age of 50. Born in 1956, the freedom of a happy childhood in two rooms in a Bristol flat alone with Edna, her mother, ends with entry into school. Her transition into adolescence coincides with changes in her family circumstances (mother re-marries) and a change of home. She meets Madeleine who becomes a life-long friend. Having kept her 'true self' and intelligence concealed at High School, where she had gained an entrance scholarship, Stella becomes aware of her sexuality and the self-realisation that she is clever, coming 'like a sensation of divinity'. It also leads to boys. The attractive and self-confident Valentine,( under personal tutelage from a gay teacher), with a swagger a spliff and arrogance, introduces Stella to Beckett, Burroughs, and drugs. After a communal living, he leaves for America after a sudden traumatic event with more than a memory for Stella, bringing up questions that later events may question his sexual orientation.

Stella's rebellious streak develops alongside a need for some form of stablity as she has more than herself to consider. Never found wanting, she seems incapable or averse to advice or hardwork. A series of transgressions are accompanied by an eager openness embracing the new and unconventional ways of life even if more catastrophe follows. Political, cultural, educational and social changes rapidly follow in parallel. Even when feelings of foreboding arise, Stella is often remarkably uncomplaining and happy in an 'unbalanced ecstatic kind of way'. Despite the uncertainties that face her, adversity is accompanied by a sense of detachment and autonomy. As one door of opportunity closes another opens to provide another chapter in her chain of events.

Life sometimes becomes repetitious, 'like a barrier I couldn't pass'. This and Stella's episodic life escapes are anchored by immersing herself into her passion for Victorian literature 'like a life-saving camouflage'. She is remarkably stoical and self-reliant despite hardships along the way to understanding and reflecting on the eventualities of her life and how it has panned out with changes in her personal needs and surprisingly satisfying pursuits.

Stella is a fascinating subject who narrates the story in the first person. Tessa Hadley has created a sharply perceptive novel with a remarkable insight into the heroine's behaviour and thoughts with sensitively described interactions between Stella, family and friends. The ten chapters move into an entity written with succinct prose introducing influential, often ordinary characters, seamlessly developing them in detail flowing between domesticity, hedonism and intellectualism. A novel that probes beneath the superficiality of behaviour to expose the depths beneath. Thoughtful, sensitively written and thoroughly enjoyable.
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