The Past centres on four adult siblings and their families as they gather at their late grandparents’ country house for the summer. It opens with one sibling worrying whether strangers might think she is the mother or lover of the young man beside her. Tessa Hadley approaches this broad theme – where we stand in relation to the stages of life – from different directions throughout the novel, often emphasising the gulfs that separate the old, the young, the adolescent and the middle-aged, as if human beings metamorphose into different species as they age.
In the house, the sexual tension between a university student and a sixteen-year-old when they ‘encounter … one of their own kind’ plays out in parallel to an intensely private psychodrama that is taking place between two younger children. Hadley describes even-handedly the chasm between the experiences of frazzled parents and those young adults who still inhabit the ‘bright, hard, selfish time’. Meanwhile another sibling’s belief