Lost the plot

Tessa Hadley has perfected a magic trick. And I want to know her secret.

She writes these novels - the most recent one is the excellent The Past - that break the rules of plot. Specifically the main rule that plot should progress in an Aristotelian arc. Characters are introduced. The scene is set. There is pressing conflict and tensions mount toward a peak. The handgun is shot, secrets are revealed, the story blows wide open. Then, climax discharged with, characters settle into a new normal and denouement eases into conclusion.

That is the formula. It's what readers expect, what keeps pages turning. But then along comes Tessa Hadley. And she's got no truck with any of that.

In The Past four middle aged siblings gather in the country home of their grandparents. Hadley tells the story through the eyes of the grown children and then, rewinding a few decades, from the point of view of their mother. Secrets are revealed, sure. There is a mystery, yes (the decaying carcass of a dog is found in an abandoned cottage) but it doesn't feel very pressing. There is a romance, yes. But it isn't very urgent. Doesn't this sound like the world's most boring book?

And yet, The Past is a compulsive read. I finished it in just a few days and then was sorry it wasn't longer (this, incidentally, is how I devour all her books and stories). What is it about Hadley? Her prose is faultless. She has a way of finding words for the things that are indescribable; her writing thrums with arresting moments of insight. And in her stories, character is queen. Her imaginary people - so flawed, so foolish, so endearing - continue to resonate long after the last page is read.

Is this the secret? Can conventional plot be replaced by insightful, well-crafted prose and pitch perfect characters? Are those three ingredients sufficient to propel a story forward? Somehow, I don't think it's as simple as following a formula. My suspicion is it's the exceptional writer who can pull this off, conjure story without plot. And those rare birds aren't giving away any of their secrets.