January 7, 2016 6:22 AM EST

Tessa Hadley has the natural bent of a short-story writer, given to careful description and the kind of feinted closure that pushes uncomfortably past happily ever after. If her new novel, The Past, reads like a long short story, that’s not a bad thing. The Crane siblings and their progeny have gathered at their grandparents’ English country home to decide whether to sell it. As the three sisters and brother work through their ties to the house, they also take stock of one another and the twists life has handed them.

Commingling with their past selves and the memory of their mother, the siblings seem to stagnate in time, the soporific effect of the countryside but also of nostalgia. Hadley builds to a dramatic climax by Michael Bay standards–crash, bang–but it’s a red herring. The events that alter our existence, her novel says, happen not with a quake but with a shiver: an errant embrace, a chance meeting, the feel of cancerous tissue under the skin. With each discovery, in an instant, the present outweighs the past.

This appears in the January 18, 2016 issue of TIME.

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