Central to Clever Girl: A Novel, the story crafted by Tessa Hadley, is the character of Stella, the daughter of a single mother who has chosen to keep her daughter in the dark about her father.
We first meet these characters when they live in England in what is commonly known as a “bed sit.” It is the late 1950s when the story begins, but almost immediately, we are thrust into the 1960s, when Stella is ten years old. Something happens then that changes her ideas about her mother, and for years afterwards, the two of them are on a collision course.
What changes Stella’s mind about her mother? About herself? And how do her altered perceptions somehow dictate the course of her life from then on? How will she discover her “cleverness,” and why does she submerge it for a time in her life?
Like many coming-of-age tales, we see how Stella takes on the issues of the times and makes choices because of what is happening around her. The story is narrated in Stella’s first person voice, so her perceptions do color what is happening. Sometimes the story seems to be told from a distance, many years hence, and we discover that she is retelling events from that perspective: the perspective of a much older woman who is looking back at her life.
Thus we tend to question the accuracy of what has happened. Time and distance often alter events, and I suspect that this has happened in Stella’s case. The effect of this “looking back” seems to place a scrim between the narrator and the reader, leading to difficulty in following the story at times. She seemed to move back and forth between the moments of her life, and then, as if struck by an anecdote or event, she shares her perspective.
After years of barely scrounging along, she suddenly rediscovers her “cleverness,” attends university, and finally takes on a professional life and a marriage. At this point, Stella’s narrative shifts into a more insightful form. I enjoyed these latter pages more, and felt a connection to her life and her story. 4.0 stars.