‘The Stain’ by Tessa Hadley

The Stain by Tessa Hadley, 2011

The magic trick:

Building a climatic scene but then withholding crucial details

We begin another Tessa Hadley Week on SSMT today.

The crucial scene in this story stands out. It’s dramatic. It’s tense. There is a real feeling of potential physical danger for Marina, our protagonist. But, ultimately, it’s a feint. Anthony reveals the deep, dark secrets of his grandfather’s past to Marina. But we are only told that he does so. Crucially, we do not actually hear the secrets for ourselves.

Why would the author do that? Why keep us in the dark?

Well, if we get the gory details of his past, they surely would overtake the story. As it is, they are significant in that they send the plot immediately to its conclusion. But the reader, without the specifics, is left to ponder Marina’s decision by looking at more subtle points. Her resistance to gifts and unofficial family status are about a lot more than rejection of the old man’s past military actions. It’s far more personal – and, frankly, more interesting. The withholding of the military details points the reader toward Marina’s life and her choices and away from a focus on obvious politics.

And that’s quite a trick on Hadley’s part.

The selection:

“You’re good people, I know you are. I watch you. I want to help your husband out, let him start up a little business of his own. I want to set up a trust fund, so that your boy can go to a decent school.”

“To give something like that to someone, you have to be a relative. Or you have to have known them all your life, through thick and thin. This story you’ve dreamed up about us isn’t real. You haven’t even met my husband.”

“It you who doesn’t know about the real world,” he said impatiently. “Money changes things, if you’ve got it. You can change anything.”

“I don’t want change, then.”

“I don’t believe you.”


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