Tessa Hadley is, apparently, a New Yorker staple—six of ten of the stories in Bad Dreams were published first in the magazine (and Deborah Treisman is the first person Hadley thanks in her acknowledgements). If you like the New Yorker‘s aesthetic, I imagine you’ll like Bad Dreams. Enough said.
1. “An Abduction”: At times, the fusty Englishness of this story irritated me. But Hadley does capture a particular summer feeling; the desolate boredom and simultaneous awe that you can only ever feel during the dog days of a summer childhood. There’s also a moment in the story in which the protagonist enters an adult bedroom and encounters a duvet for the first time, embedding the image forever in her mind as the picture of “adult life”—who doesn’t have such bizarre pictures buried in their subconscious? 3 stars
- Question: Does happiness in adulthood blur memories of childhood?
- Note: I think I’m annoyed when a contemporary story erases the existence of technology.
2. “The Stain”: The writing is solid here, it just isn’t my taste. “The Stain” reads like assigned high school reading. 2 stars
3. “Deeds Not Words”: …was this a story? Or am I just clouded by my distaste for historical fiction? 1 star
4. “One Saturday Morning”: My problems with this story mirror my problems with all of the stories in this collection: solid, unimpeachable writing that nonetheless feels white and WASPy and workshopped to death. That said, I did like that Carrie (the protagonist) didn’t witness something untoward. Just as The Sixth Sense cannot be done in 2022, nor can Atonement. 2.5 stars
5. “Experience”: This story was one of my favorites in the collection, and I think it’s because it’s one of the few that’s told in first—it feels less fussy. And I liked the subversion—again, Hadley is great at this—of expectation. The reader expects sex, and it doesn’t happen, and that’s somehow more satisfying. 3.5 stars
6. “Bad Dreams”: This story captures the small violences of domesticity, the way perceived wrongs can be stored and hidden; and it hints at how they might snowball …
I also appreciated the idea that reprieve can be found in altering your environment—if you’re not the same inside, it’s disconcerting that the world outside yourself looks unchanged. 3 stars
7. “Flight”: Another competent story competently told that just doesn’t spark much in me beyond objective recognition. 2 stars
- Note: I like that Hadley’s writing is rarely focused on men.
8. “Under the Sign of the Moon”: There seems to be a lot lurking beneath the surface of this story. That said, I have no idea what those things might be. I also felt there was a flatness of affect—maybe intentionally? To mirror the protagonist’s flattened sense of her life? 2.5 stars
9. “Her Share of Sorrow”: This story (especially the ending, which I detested) is as melodramatic as the novel the adolescent protagonist is writing. 1 star
10. “Silk Brocade”: This story is tied for my favorite of the collection. I especially liked how it zoomed out at the end, stripping the events of the story down to what, of course, they actually are: meaningless history (as all history is). 3.5 stars
- For some reason—the atmosphere or the tone or maybe just Thwaite Park—this story gave me strong Jane Austen vibes.
But liking people and even loving them seemed to me now like ways of keeping yourself safe, and I didn’t want to be safe. I wanted to cross the threshold and be initiated into real life. My innocence was a sign of something maimed and unfinished in me. (“Experience”)
Solitude’s like a drug … you use it. You can’t let it use you. (“Experience”)
Since her illness began, at least in the intervals when she felt well enough to read, she had immersed herself in books almost fanatically, trying not to leave open any chink in her consciousness through which she could be waylaid by awareness of her body or by fear or disgust. (“Under the Sign of the Moon”)