The Past is about the summer reunion of four middle-aged siblings—three sisters and a brother— in the English countryside at their grandparents’ decrepit home. Gathered together with the siblings are the brother’s new wife, his teen-age daughter, one of the sister’s two small children, and the college-age son of another sister’s ex-boyfriend. One can immediately see the symbolism of “the past” in the house, and the looming decision to let it go or to hold onto it. It becomes the setting for the interactions between the siblings, who carry their family baggage in their personalities. They chafe at one another in petty ways that no one can understand nor change. The two outsiders, the new wife, and the ex-boyfriend’s son, serve as constant reminders of the larger world beyond the family. They are both resented and needed by the siblings.
A second secret place within this drama is a run- down, abandoned cottage hidden in the woods, which serves as the locus of hidden desires and fears. It is a source of conflict that remains unknown to the self-involved siblings, but is important to the two young children’s exploration of the confusing subjects of death and sexuality. It is also the place of a past event, which takes the reader to 1968, when the siblings were young and their mother had returned to her parents’ home during a brief separation with their father.
Ms. Hadley has a gift— she describes people and places in elegant prose that elevates the mundane. She also has penetrating insight into the psychological and emotional worlds of women and men, the young and old, and an ability to describe human flaws with compassion. ■