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Tessa Hadley's 'Sunstroke' is an entertaining collection of short stories, which although appear quite different from each other, all have the common theme of the dramas of family life. Several of the stories share the subject matter of sexual misbehaviour, either in theory - as in the title story, where two young mothers fantasize about the same man - or in practice, where a married man visits a woman who sexually teased him when he was a young teenager and who belatedly carries out his desire of making love to her. In one story, a young man confesses to his mother that he is being unfaithful to his girlfriend; whilst in another, a student falls in love with her lecturer and starts an affair with a young man who looks just like him. In 'Buckets of Blood' a vicar's daughter, Hilary Culvert, bored by her home life at the vicarage, looks forward to visiting her older sister who is away at university in Bristol. When Hilary arrives in Bristol, instead of finding her sister in the halls of residence leading an exciting and independent life, she finds her staying in a squat whilst going through a very unpleasant miscarriage. Travelling back home on the bus, Hilary starts to see her surroundings in a different light and decides that she must "...take in everything hungrily while she has the chance, every least tiny detail".

Tessa Hadley is a very good writer; her descriptive prose is elegant yet powerful, and she is able to conjure up her characters and their situations with concise but well-defined strokes, enabling her readers to engage with them almost immediately. I enjoyed all of the stories in this collection - some a little more than others, but most are worth more than one reading, and on further readings, you may discover something different or something you missed first time round. And when you have finished this entertaining book of short stories, there is another one:Married Love by the same author just waiting for you.

4 Stars.
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on 17 August 2017
This collection of short stories was on my university reading list and they have blown me away - I haven't finished reading them all yet but thought I'd review anyway. Rich and atmospheric, these stories flag up so many aspects of the feminine condition - beautiful language, sharp observations and textures you can almost touch. I shall be moving on to Tessa Hadley's novels at the first opportunity.
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on 27 March 2010
I enjoyed this collection of short stories from Tessa Hadley. Yes, everyone in every story is relentlessly middle-class and Hadley is overly indulgent, in a way, towards her subjects, but they are also measured, realistic, charming and sometimes very touching. I'm thinking especially about the last story here, 'Matrilineal', which describes a row about Helen's jazz alto-saxophonist husband wanting some practice-time and proposing to do it in their flat, which has an elderly couple on the floor below, who are abnormally sensitive to noise. After the row he goes to a gig and Helen, his wife, packs a large suitcase and takes the children off to her mother's flat above a hairdressers. We see the journey and the one night's stay from the point of view of the eldest daughter, Nia, who is, I'm guessing, around five or six (of course, he comes after them in the morning and they are reconciled the moment he walks through the door). This child's eye-view is, it seems to me, handled with an assured and beautiful set of apposite details (the enjoyable novelty of getting on a bus, Nia's fear of the hair-dryers they have to negotiate to get to the flat upstairs, her thrill at being able to sleep in the same bed as her mother, the child's lovely sensuality at the physical closeness). Then, years later on a trip to New York, her mother denies that any such incident ever occurred. She has simply forgotten it and Nia doesn't challenge her. This, near-perfect in execution, is, for me, the best story in the book.
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Tessa Hadley is a brave and original writer - like the young D.H. Lawrence (to take one example) she writes about what she knows about, rather than try to cash in on the latest trends. These stories may largely be about middle-class, university-educated people, but in writing about what she really knows about, Hadley gives us convincing characters that we can really believe in, rather than stereotypes. Her descriptive language is very strong, and there's a great deal of variety between stories, from a young mother's first, very tentative steps towards adultery (or will she draw back in time?) to an English lecturer and single mother realizing that her own wild youth may have had an influence on her son's behaviour with women, to a clergyman's daughter visiting her student sister (who is having a miscarriage) to another lecturer visiting the house of a famous writer and remembering her own unhappy adolescence - and lots more. Only occasionally (as for example in 'The Substitute' where a student who we never really feel we get to know falls for her lecturer and has an affair with a plumber who closely resembles him, or in the story of a maths teacher unable to forget a childhood holiday where an older woman flirted with him outragously) do we feel that Hadley is slightly going through the motions, and not so interested in her characters as human beings. A slightly mixed collection then - but the best of these stories will stay with you for a long time.
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on 20 July 2008
This collection of ten stories focuses on the drudgery of children and family life; the contrast between the present day and the radical late-sixties/ early-seventies; the plasticity of memory; and women who desire unsuitable and sometimes horrible men. My favourite was the one in which a young girl from a repressive family goes to visit her elder sister at university in 1972, and finds she's having an abortion; and another where a student - in love with her lecturer - sleeps with another man just because he looks like him, while being snobbishly aware of the difference in their social class. I know what A.Whitehead's review here means by the narrow range of characters - overwhelmingly arty, booky and lefty - but I thought the ironic style does deflate them a little, although the insecure adolescents in several stories are much more lovable than the comfortable adults of others. And despite one or two absurd sentences ("her tan was the kind you can only get in the South of France") for me it was a fast and absorbing read, often coming to the end of a story feeling I knew the characters well and wanting it to continue.
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on 11 February 2008

This sort of writing should never have made it out of the 1970s.

Tessa Hadley excels, as the Glasgow Herald quote on the back cover says: "in glimpses: those small burning memories ... which haunt as well as remind...".

But that's about it - a couple of good paragraphs of insight per story and the rest is pretty awful and myopic.

Virtually all her characters (really!) are graduate women who have studied Arts, usually English Literature, at university. Two, in separate stories, teach it at degree level. Most are post-feminists struggling to reconcile their past with a slow-dawning realisation that men are not all worthless, and that they still fancy them sometimes. Hadley herself is obviously still struggling: for example she attributes bizarre and inconsistent passions for guns to two of her male characters apparently purely to make the point that men are simple and doltish - unlike complex, peaceful women.

Some of her characters actually do read The Guardian but one cannot imagine any of them ever reading anything else. Two, in two different stories work for Labour MPs. In short Hadley has but one character: a post-feminist, socialist English Lit graduate, which she spins out by featuring them before, during and after university - an experience with which Hadley is clearly obsessed. She appears to takes the advice to writers about concentrating on what you know to risible extremes. A few characters even attend writing courses.

But even if one accepts this awfully narrow slice of society as adequate raw material, the characters themselves are inadequate and unattractive to the point where you simply do not care what happens to them. The men, of course, are laughably repulsive, like Vince in the title story Sunstroke. He is meant to be attractive to women but we are told he is "... lean with wedge-narrow face of a well-bred collie." Well-bred!

and Patrick, the object of desire in The Surrogate, who was "...tall with rather bowed shoulders; he was hollowly thin except for a small beer belly nestled in the stretched cloth of his T-shirt above his belt." Nestled!

"Really very sexy" is The Guardian quote used on the front cover. Really? Even the hilarious description of Thomas in Mother`s Son? "...how handsome she found him... he was odd-looking, with a crooked nose and a big loose mouth... his skin flared sensitively where the raw planes of his face were overgrowing...."

If this is what Hadley and her mates at The Guardian find sexy then god help them. It sounds to me like Thomas needs to see a doctor.

And then, even if one ignores these ridiculous descriptions, there's Hadley's careless repetition of style and imagery: too many things are `washed' or `rainwashed`, all the men have black curly hair, the women are all complex and sensitive and so it goes drearily on... .
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on 15 January 2011
These short stories are immediate, enjoyable, interesting and the story lines have unpredictable endings...... I'd definitely read more of her stories.
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