The broken branch was a symbol of my too-much

clever girl

Clever Girl
by Tessa Hadley

I bought this book for two reasons ā€“ it’s set in Bristol and it was a staff recommendation at the very lovely Mr B’s Reading Emporium in Bath. Why buy one of the hundreds of books on my wishlist when I can pick up something new and random?

Stella tells us her life story, from working-class single-parent 1950s origins, to gaining a stepfather and moving to a fancy new estate and fancy new school in the 1960s. Stella is smart and suddenly she has the opportunity to do something with her abilities. But a life that could have been predictable is made unpredictable by choices she makes when she is 17.

“He broke off a whole branch of wet, scented apple blossom and gave it to me. It was a criminal thing; bees were still dangling, desirous, around the flowers’ stamen and stigma and their bulges of ovary which would never now grow into apples. The broken branch was a symbol of my too-much; it seemed more lordly not to refuse such bounty if offered. What it was impossible to have without harm was also most to be desired.”

For a lot of the book, Stella is a window into the youth cultures of the time, from the late 1960s on through the 70s and 80s. She is attracted to the political and the alternative, but somehow the book is never about politics itself, only about political ideologies. Stella is never wholly happy or satisfied or confident in herself, which makes her a sympathetic, if occasionally frustrating, character. She certainly doesn’t let her lack of direction stop her from living a varied and interesting life.

“I tried to prolong this happiness, or find a code I could store it in, so that it meant something even when I wasn’t feeling it. I imagined it as resembling the filmy skin of a bubble enclosing its sphere of ordinary air; impermanent yet also, for as long as it existed, flexible and resilient ā€“ real, a revelation.”

In some ways, this book could have been set anywhere, or at least in any British city outside London, but on the other hand, Bristol does have a certain mix of people and neighbourhoods that allows Stella to see and meet all sorts without ever living anywhere else. For those familiar with Bristol, you can nod along when Hadley mentions a specific area, knowing what relevance it has, but Hadley gives enough information for non-Bristolians to get it too (e.g. Totterdown in the 1970s = working class; Totterdown in the 2000s = working and middle class, arty types and professionals ā€“ I can attest to this one!). I don’t know any other city as well as Bristol but I can firmly believe in this story happening here. I can believe in people getting lost in politics/drugs/ideals while all around them friends and family plod on with boring ordinary lives.

“The land’s fabric seemed dragged down and tearing under the sheer weight of the built environment, which never ended and could surely never be undone and wasn’t even thriving: the monster machine was stalling, it had poisoned itself and now it had fallen into enemy hands.”

Stella’s story is very readable and absorbing, with some gorgeous language, but somehow not quite what I hoped for. She’s smart and loves books, which is usually a winner for me, but the story doesn’t linger on her bookishness, lingering instead on the men in her life, who are admittedly key, but for a character who calls herself feminist I struggled with how much she is defined by her role or by her man and not by her self.

Published 2013 by Jonathan Cape.

Source: Mr B’s Reading Emporium, Bath.