January 21, 2013


By Tessa Hadley
~6500 words

A woman fleeing a divorce house-sits for the friend of a friend and has an encounter with the homeowner's ex-lover.

The narrator and main character, Laura, moves into a three-story London townhouse when the owner, Hana, relocates temporarily to Los Angeles. Jobless and nearly broke as a result of her divorce, Laura has a desire to shed her past "as cleanly as a skin," and she finds the anonymity of her new surroundings—"this nowhere where I was nobody"—appealing. She spends her days wandering through the house and eating through the items in Hana's freezer, venturing outside when the maid comes to clean. In a locked attic to which she discovers a key—"I felt as if I'd found my way into the inner workings of the house, or of Hana"—she finds a porn collection, sex toys, and a private diary containing entries about a torrid affair that Hana had with a man named Julian. Laura is dumbfounded by the passion on display in the diary, and when Julian calls to ask if he can come over to pick up some camping equipment stored in the attic, she attempts to seduce him in Hana's clothes and perfume, only to be ultimately rebuffed.

The story stands out for the impressive complexity of the main character. A master liar and manipulator, Laura is also woefully inexperienced and inhibited, incapable of writing the word fuck when summarizing Hana's diary. So empty is her intimate life, so barren the wasteland of her failed marriage that "after my evening with Julian I know I came across as older and more experienced."

Such a character would come across as unbearably pathetic if she didn't possess Laura's disarming sense of self-awareness:
I've never lived, I thought, as I knelt there, reading [Hana's journal] with my legs cramped underneath me, aware of the rain as if it were drumming on my skin. I've never lived: the words ran in my head. Life was garish and ruthless and exaggerated, and I'd never really had it—I was like one of those child brides in history whose marriage is annulled by the Pope because it wasn't consummated.
Viewed coldly, from outside, how silly Hana's affair was and how demeaning, with its hysteria and its banal props. But who wanted to view things coldly, from outside?
"Experience" is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, and Hadley has an odd attachment to the parenthesis (though she controls it much better here than in "An Abduction"), but the story still shines on the strength of its compelling characters and skillful language.


Reader poll: I found "Experience" to be ___.

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