The Past: It Sounds Beautiful, Whatever It Means

The Past ThumbnailTessa Hadley’s The Past is an exploration of family tensions that intensify when a group of relatives gather in their grandparents’ country home, possibly for the last time. The gathering includes the Crane family’s four adult siblings, a secretive new wife, two small children with a penchant for voyeurism, a dreamy teenager, and a lustful college student whose sexual history is neither disastrous nor successful.

This is not a book to read for its plot, which is too subtle for my taste, or for its characters, who aren’t particularly likeable or deep. Instead, the beauty of this novel lies in Hadley’s lengthy descriptions of the house and the English countryside:

The house and the church stood together on the rim of a bowl of air scooped deep between the surrounding hills, and buzzards floated on thermals in the air below them. The ancient stubby tower of the church, blind without windows, seemed sunk in the red earth… In the churchyard the earth was upheaved as turbulently as a sea by all the burials in it, and overgrown at one end with tall hogweed and rusty dock.

This place sounds stunning, even though I can’t exactly picture “hogweed” or “rusty dock” without the help of the Internet. Unfortunately, though, the first Google hit for “rusty dock” is an Urban Dictionary entry for a sexual act, which can’t possibly be what Hadley had in mind.

Here’s another snippet:

She advanced across the grass into her dream: the old house dozed in the sunshine, and its French windows under their little canopy of dun lead, burdened with clematis montana, might have opened onto any scene of royalty or poetry or tragic forbearance.

It’s another lovely description, not that I know what “dun lead” looks like. I am familiar with clematis, but I had to google it to determine how clematis montana differs from the varieties I typically picture.

Interestingly, the publisher billed this novel as Hadley’s “most accessible, commercial novel yet.” While it may well be “accessible” in comparison to her other novels, none of which I’ve read, I wouldn’t say this foray into the Crane family’s past and present experience is easy to read. If it were truly “accessible,” I probably wouldn’t need Google to figure out what the descriptions mean.

Which brings me back to “rusty dock” and “dun lead.” Are these Britishisms? I don’t have the patience to skim through thousands of Google results to figure it out.


*I added this novel to my TBR pile after seeing it mentioned on River City Reading (thanks, Shannon!).


  1. Love it when an author effortlessly works in semi-obscure vocabulary without coming across as a smart ass. ‘Dun cow’ is the only time I’ve come across the adjective. Dock leaves were always sought as a child to combat nettle stings. Happily nature has arranged it that they both live near one another.

  2. You’ve seen one type of dock or another – the rusty, red flowering stalks usually persist through winter. I’m more familiar with curly dock, and that one won’t get you in trouble for googling. As far as hogweed, the giant variety is quite noxious; however I’m not convinced which of the 60 herbs in the Heracleum genus she’s referring to.

    1. Thank you! I should have googled “dock” AND “plant” instead of “rusty dock.” If I were Hadley, I wouldn’t have paired “rusty” with “dock.” I would’ve picked a different adjective.

  3. You definitely don’t want giant hogweed. It causes severe irritation of the skin or eyes, horrible blistering, and can lead to permanent scarring or blindness. Strange plant to find in literature.

  4. I’ve just finished Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and for the first half of the book there is no discernible plot at all! But there is a reason for it, so I was fine with that. It’s a bit of a balancing act I suppose…

    1. It’s definitely a balancing act! I’m impressed when an author manages to keep my attention without much of a plot. That’s what happened with The Past. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I’ve long been a reader of books by English writers, especially historicals, so the things that gave you pause didn’t slow me down in the least. Heh. Nicely written descriptions are a pleasure to read, but I do demand a solid plot accompany them. I’m torn on whether to open this one or not.

  6. I definitely need to get back to this! I certainly don’t read for plot or characters, most of the time, so it’s definitely straight in my wheelhouse. I was in a book-dropping mood when I picked it up, so I need to give it another go!

    1. I hope you enjoy it! I tend to prefer plot-driven books, but somehow this one worked for me. The ending is rather poignant too. Thanks for spreading the word about this one.

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