Tessa Hadley’s new novel begins on an ominous note. A long-married couple, Alex and Christine, are listening to music. Christine recognises the music but doesn’t know what it is. Stubbornly she refuses to ask Alex: ‘he took too much pleasure in knowing what she didn’t know.’ Almost an aside, this observation hints at struggle beneath an orderly exterior. Later Christine will observe, ‘Marriage simply meant that you hung on to each other through [a] succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to.’ Her casual coda speaks volumes.
Set mainly in London, Late in the Day tells the story of a sudden death and its consequences. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks, beginning in the 1960s, which trace the relationships of four friends from childhood to late middle age. This at times reads like a version of Swap Your Partner. Alexandr and Zachary, both from refugee families, are allies in misery at their English public school. Christine and Lydia are fellow subversives at a girls’ grammar school. At university, Lydia becomes infatuated with Alex, who teaches French. Alex, now married and a published poet, is more attracted to Christine. Her doctorate is on Christina Rossetti, but she respects Alex’s ‘functional’ poetry, which resists ‘any reading that was pretty or comforting’. Is Hadley telling the reader something about her own artistic credo? Zach worships Lydia but has a companionable affair with Christine. Eventually Christine abandons scholarship for art and marries Alex, now divorced. Idle, self-indulgent Lydia settles for wealthy Zach, whose fashionable gallery exhibits Christine’s work. The couples remain close friends until Zach’s death dramatically realigns the relationships among the survivors.