IN Bad Dreams and Other Stories, a collection of 10 tales, Tessa Hadley develops a quiet but nevertheless vicious catalog of the misery dealt to women who care — for themselves, for other people, or for abstract principles like love or justice. For example, “The Stain” reads as a warning about the dangers of caring for people altogether. A woman, Marina, is hired to take care of an old South African émigré, only to find out later that he once worked in the South African Defence Force rather than as a mere farmer, as she was told. Marina’s measured response underscores the way this personal tale could surely have been predicted — the man is white, wealthy, and in his late 80s — but Hadley also suggests that while the revelation of a cruel past comes as no surprise, the knowledge of the old man’s complicity is impossible to erase once known, even if it was possible to ignore when it was only a probable fact. As Hadley explains: “There was no violent shock, only a settled change, and the realisation — a surprise — that — you couldn’t undo the knowledge of the thing with the same calm ease with which you had taken it in.”

Sometimes, Hadley lines up the smallest of private revelations with larger sociopolitical events. In “Deeds Not Words,” cynical Edith has a love affair with a married co-teacher, Mr. Briers, that is undercut by the story of another teacher, Laura Mulhouse, and her arrest and imprisonment for suffragette window breaking. The collapse of Edith’s love affair coincides with Laura’s return to school after her prison fast is broken with force feeding. Laura is deflated, “lusterless and clammy”; the allure she once had for her students is now gone. Earlier in the story, Laura’s self-seriousness was the target of Edith’s derision, but if Edith’s perception of Gibson-girlish Laura is accurate, and Laura is more convinced by the quasi-fictional romance of the suffragettes than true political righteousness, then Hadley suggests that Edith’s own passionate affair, in which a cupboard stuffed with French books becomes “a scene of […] revelations,” is as deflating and as false. Laura’s suffering does little to elevate her limp political views, just as the erotic charge of Edith’s affair fails to justify her lover’s adultery.

The impossibility of forgetting something bad once you have known it runs like a current through these peculiar stories. Each one has a perplexing, but compelling, blend of familiarity and idiosyncrasy. The settings, the plots, even the characters giving off a low, comfortable hum of literary Englishness. There are familiar kinds of rooms (kitchens and lounges), foods (muesli and seed cake), and places (Leeds and Stafford), but there is something unsettling about these conventional invocations, something gently malign. Hadley’s precision, her unwavering eye for a telling detail, elevates this collection into something out of the ordinary.

The formality of these English scenes, built out of literary artifacts culled from the canon of British literature, eases the reader into seeing, clearly, peculiar ambivalences that would otherwise be shrouded in darkness. For instance, in “An Abduction,” the collection’s first story, a group of older boys pick up 15-year-old narrator Jane Allsop and encourage her to shoplift, take her to one of their houses, seduce her, and then leave her unceremoniously at the bottom of the garden where the story started. The plot’s circular rhythms emphasize the hazy confusion in Jane’s perceptions — is Daniel, the boy who seduces her, a minor-key lothario, unthreatening and responding to Jane’s own desires, or is he a rapist, taking advantage of Jane’s naïveté? Is Jane abducted, or is this part of the process of getting older, of turning from childhood into early adulthood? Hadley doesn’t answer these questions, exactly, but the story’s end, which telescopes out of the long day of the abduction into Jane’s and Daniel’s futures, gives us a glimpse into a possible answer: “[Jane’s] early initiation stayed in a sealed compartment in her thoughts and seemed to have no effects, no consequences.” In that “seemed,” Hadley envelops a number of possibilities, suggesting that a lack of evidence is not a clear sign that an experience has not had a lasting effect, positive or negative.

Further, Jane eventually tells a therapist about the experience, “[h]altingly,” the therapist’s own perception looping between bored condescension, “These women’s fantasies […] have more to do with interior décor than with repressed desires,” and something like the connoisseur’s titillation: “That’s more like it, the counselor thought. That’s something.” This tactic further stresses the way fantasy, threat, and banality mingles in Hadley’s plots: Are we supposed to see the therapist as impressed with Jane’s memory? If so, what does that mean for the process of therapeutic speech? What is the relationship between an event and its retelling? Does the retelling help clarify how one feels, or does it layer one’s experience with a new perception, recasting the memory, changing the plot’s points?

Across these stories, Hadley patterns the lives of her characters with snippets of British history, particularly British literary history. These passages are difficult to parse. The quotations or references are not used, as they so often are, to confer a sense of literary high seriousness, or even to punctuate that sort of high seriousness. Instead, Hadley’s references draw attention to both the way her characters are products of literary and historical pressures and also to the way literature may not be as powerful as its adherents often assume it to be. For example, early in “An Abduction,” Hadley presents a snippet of canonical poetry in a cynical light, so cynical that it is hard to parse the passage’s intended or effective use:

[Daniel] wanted to say that revolution was a kind of cleansing that conferred its own immortality in a perpetual present. Art had to be revolutionary or it would die in time. He believed as he spoke that he was brilliantly eloquent, but in truth he was rambling incoherently.
Paddy, getting the gist of it, quoted poetry in an ironic voice: — ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.’
— Signor Keats, I do believe, Nigel said.
— Oh, that’s the poet, Jane said. — We have his bust at home, on the piano.

Jane’s recognition of Keats’s name, not his lines, draws attention to the way a slight awareness with British literary history comes to stand in for an impoverished kind of cultural sophistication. Yet Hadley is not content to let this kind of middlebrow condescension linger unchallenged. On the one hand, one might criticize the flimsiness of Jane’s observation — that her family has a bust of Keats on its piano — but one might also realize that Paddy’s recitation, his “ironic voice” meant to disparage both Daniel and Keats, signals his own failure to understand the way irony is already built into Keats’s ode. In other words, literary complexity shuts down superciliousness; the ironical comment has already been made, and in more persuasive terms.

The authority that literature has in ordering a life is perhaps most striking in two stories that focus on children. In the titular story, “Bad Dreams,” a girl wakes up from a dream in which she finds a secret epilogue to her favorite book, Swallows and Amazons. The epilogue undoes all the adventurous hopefulness of Arthur Ransome’s series:

Of course, the words weren’t actually in front of her eyes, and parts of what was written were elusive when she sought them; certain sentences, though, were scored into her awareness as sharply as if she’d heard them read aloud […] The litany of [character] deaths tore jaggedly into the tissue that the book had woven, making everything lopsided and hideous. The epilogue’s gloating bland language, complacently regretful, seemed to relish catching her out in her dismay.

The dreamed epilogue’s canting ruin bleeds into the world as the girl, awake and irritable, knocks over all the chairs in her family’s lounge. The slippery worlds of the reading child and of realistic dreams blur together in a moment of real-world antagonism, which pits the early stages of social self-awareness — the girl’s frustrations with her parents’ lives beyond the family — against the exciting obliviousness that childhood — an obliviousness reinforced by absorptive reading and rereading — often allows.

In “Her Share of Sorrow,” Ruby, a black sheep in a family of sleek overachievers, suddenly develops a deep investment in reading when she comes across a set of old books in the attic of a vacation house. These books — sensation fiction from the 19th century — open up a world beyond her own, unlike the pallid children’s fiction to which she has become accustomed, which “drearily [seem] like her own real-life childish routines of home and school and family.” The family’s return from vacation cuts off Ruby’s voracious reading, and, returned to her regular routine, she begins to write a novel of her own. Ruby’s family’s gentle amusement when they discover her secret, melodramatic story upsets her so much that she shuts down the fiction, killing off her characters with a wasting fever. In both of these stories, Hadley describes the attenuated pleasure in cruelty that reading licenses, thus drawing attention to a sadistic aspect of reading fiction. In other words, readers are often dissatisfied with happy endings, vastly preferring the ambivalent or downright bad, nodding like connoisseurs at the way the fiction illuminates the power of people to suffer and persist. At her best, Hadley draws attention to this vicious feature of reading while also protecting her readers from outright condemnation. We are not openly malicious, after all, but are instead creatures like these children: absorbed, engaged, spurred on to the ends of our books with only the faintest current of cruelty pushing us along.

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Claire Jarvis is an assistant professor at Stanford University. Her first book, Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, is out now from the Johns Hopkins University Press.