‘Silk Brocade’ by Tessa Hadley

Silk Brocade by Tessa Hadley, 2015

The magic trick:

Keeping the story’s time period vague until near the end of the story

“Silk Brocade” doesn’t make its setting’s era clear at first. We know it’s Bristol, England. We know the young women are making dresses with scissors. There is a reference by a character to war.

OK, so yes, it’s pretty clear, I guess. We’re looking at post-WWII England. But it’s not laid plain until the last sentence of the main section: “That was in 1953.”

Not only does that set up the “19 years later” coda rather dramatically, it gives the reader a chance to readjust their assessments of the story’s world. We can take what we know or assume about 1953 England and apply it to the story now. Those values reshape our impressions perhaps of Ann and Kit. The class jumping marriage of Nola maybe takes on a new look.

It probably doesn’t shatter what you thought of the story to this point, but it definitely forces at least a subtle rethink. And that’s quite a trick on Hadley’s part.

The selection:

Ann wondered whether Nola Higgins was impressed by the glamorous new style of her life or simply accepted it, as calmly as she’d have accepted any place she walked into. She must have seen some things during the course of her work as a nurse, some of them horrors. Nola’s home perm made her look closer to their mothers’ age; the dark curls were too tight and flat against her head, and when she sat down she tugged her skirt over her knees, as if she were self-conscious about her broad hips. But her brown eyes were very alert and steady, and she had the kind of skin that was so soft it looked almost loose on her bones, matte pink, as if she were wearing powder, though she wasn’t.

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