Thursday, March 26, 2009

"She's the One," by Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley, a British writer who has published nine stories in the New Yorker since January of 2003 (more than anyone except Alice Munro and William Trevor), has an interesting one in last week's issue.

The main character, grieving and confused after her brother's suicide, takes refuge in reading: 

Ally read novels, wrapped up in her duvet beside the central-heating radiator in her bedroom, borrowing them from the center and the public library, sometimes finishing one and starting another without even changing her position or getting up to make coffee, like an addict. She knew that this wasn’t the right kind of reading. Studying for her literature degree, she had learned how to analyze the words and the themes; she had worked dutifully on her essay style, imitating academic articles. She imagined the reading she did now as like climbing inside one of those deep old beds she’d seen in a museum, with a sliding door to close behind you: even as she was suffering with a book and could hardly bear it, felt as if her heart would crack with emotion or with outrage at injustice, the act of reading it enclosed and saved her. Sometimes when she moved back out of the book and into her own life, just for a moment she could see her circumstances with a new interest and clarity, as if they were happening to someone else.

Fiction allows her to achieve, however briefly, a new perspective on her life. Interestingly, in the story, Ally works at a center where aspiring writers come to take classes and hone their craft. One of their assignments is to go outside and observe, to see the world in new ways. Though Ally finds that she loves to read but has no interest in how stories are constructed, over the course of this story, Ally has various experiences which allow her to see her own circumstances afresh, culminating in this one, when her brother's ex-girlfriend throws a ring he gave her into the river and then regrets having done so. Ally wades out into the freezing water to retrieve it:

She didn’t care about the ring: she had stepped into the water only to make a point against the hysterical performance on the riverbank, to show it up in some way that was deliberate and disdainful. When she turned to look back at Yvonne, she was surprised at how far she had come: Yvonne on the path seemed distant, hugging her elbows, shouting directions that Ally couldn’t hear over the water rushing past. It seemed a different universe out here in the river. The whole scene, the sad story that had brought them together, was framed for her for a moment as if from some far-off future perspective, and her rage against Yvonne washed out of her. Wanting only to be kind, she began hunting for the ring in all seriousness, peering at the riverbed, fishing for gleams in the water, her hands aching from the cold as if the flesh were being dragged off her bones. She realized that Yvonne was shouting from the bank for her to come back, please come back. It didn’t matter, Yvonne shouted. It was only a ring.

At that moment, Ally saw it, caught just underwater in a crevice in a jagged chunk of shale, its gold picked out where a beam of the late light slanted at an angle from the water’s surface. She reached out her hand to take it.

It's a beautiful moment, I think, mysterious and resonant, suggestive of the transformative power of changes in perception and perspective. Fiction, the story suggests, helps Ally practice such epiphanies, but it's life itself—taking action, encountering other human beings—that provides them for real.

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