Friday, April 10, 2015

Fiction | A Clever Life, Deconstructed

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley is one of those character books that goes into great length and detail on the unextraordinary. But that's not to say it's boring. With books like this, that's the beauty in their purpose—to focus so closely on one life and the little details that make it different from anyone else's. To help the reader understand that a life is more than a series of events; it's thoughts and emotions and relationships and the day-to-day mundane that are usually quickly forgotten.

The story opens with the description of one such life, that of 10-year-old Stella. She lives with her Mother; her father is supposedly dead, but she'd "found out years later" that he actually left. Thus with that language of recollection, the reader knows from the very beginning that this is going to be one girl's story as told by her future self. It's a remembrance, and everything we learn about Stella is going to be told as her older self reflects. So though we're hearing Stella's life story as a first-person narrative, it has this omniscient quality that guides us with a higher level of knowing and understanding.

The rest of the story is told through chapters that serve as vignettes of Stella's life at different points. At the beginning, her cousin has just died from a tragic accident, and Aunt Andy has come to live with Stella and her mother. To 10-year-old Stella, this is life, this interruption from what was normal at home and how it touches every other part of her life. We travel through adolescence as Stella tests boundaries, particularly physical ones as she explores the space around her and discovers what it means to be a part of the world outside her home. She gains a stepfather, finds a boyfriend, has a baby, becomes a maid. She gets political and artistic. She has another baby. Stella's choices keep her on the move, finding new homes and new relationships.

It takes a clever person to adjust to such shifts in life, to forge these kinds of moves. But we get the sense that, much of the time, Stella has never been completely sure of herself. She's smart and adaptable, but her decisions are uninspired, following, instead, the easy or reactionary path. From the narration, though, through its reflective manner, we do get the sense that Stella eventually finds her own raison d'etre, and makes a sort of peace with her past.

I was thirty at the beginning of my first year, the oldest in my cohort. This age different didn't matter, in fact it was a kind of convenience, because it set me apart from the other students' chaos of self-discovery, their hungry interest in one another. Compared to them, I felt my motivations purely: for all the three years of my degree, I seemed to see myself clearly as if from a distance, through a thick lens. It was such a relief to be clever at last. For years I had had to keep my cleverness cramped and concealed--not because it was dangerous and forbidden, but because it had no useful function in my daily life. In the wrong contexts, cleverness is just an inhibiting clumsiness.

Clever Girl follows the same vein as Emily Perkins' The Forrests or Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. This is another one of those books that I think needs a particular type of reader, one that is comfortable with the slow progression of character development. It's not the event happening that matters, rather how it affects the story's protagonist—how this character evolved because of the same ordinary events that are exceptionally common in everyday lives.

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