Of Human Telling
Tanya van Hasselt
Church Times Bookshop £7.20
MOST of us have experienced that daunting feeling when we have moved from a familiar to a new environment: a school, a flat, a house, and, particularly, if we shift from a city to a village or small town. It can be stressful getting to know new neighbours, assessing whether the advantages outweigh the pitfalls as we discover what they’re really like.
But we don’t usually learn the full stories of their earlier lives — the successes and the failures — except in fiction. This is Tanya van Hasselt’s main aim in Of Human Telling, with its large cast of characters, established and new, in the town of Wharton, famous for its public school, also called Wharton. Many of the wide range of characters in the novel are linked to it in various ways.
One of the book’s central characters, Austen, is a middle-aged classics teacher taking up a new post at Wharton. Eight years previously, his wife was murdered, and their only child was marked for life by a terrible slash down her face. He happens to travel down to Wharton in the train sitting opposite another of the book’s main characters, a single woman, Jane. Both naturally shy, they don’t talk in the train, but, as the novel progresses, they slowly come together, despite a shared knack for missing main opportunities.
But Jane and Austen are a small part of Wharton’s population: we meet character after character, all vividly drawn. There’s Italian Angelo, his beautiful but shallow wife, Imogen, and their children, Sofia and Terzo, Terzo meaning third: his older twin was killed when his father crashed their car, causing his shaky marriage to disintegrate.
There are the many women involved with church activities, their families, and their rebellious teenagers.
Tanya van Hasselt is very good at creating believable characters, but I began to wish (I haven’t read her first book set in Wharton) that she had concentrated on a central core of them, or at least helped the reader by supplying a cast list.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.