Tender is not strictly a novel, nor is it a conventional short story collection; it’s not even a typical mosaic novel, story cycle, or whatever name you care to give to a collection of linked stories. It is, however, a series of episodes in the lives of the Dax family, beginning in 1974 (when the parents meet), and spanning a total of thirty years. The title appears in the text, not in an emotional context, but in the context of a lamb stew which Ali Dax serves up — but her husband and son don’t seem to appreciate the tenderness of the meat, which had to be cooked slowly for it to attain that texture. All that care and effort, for what? This reflects what is perhaps the main theme of Tender — feeling discontented with life, looking back and wondering what happened, where it went.
The stories in Tender switch (though not in strict rotation) between the viewpoints of Bill and Ali Dax (who meet when he is a footballer and she his physiotherapist), and their children Sean and Rosa (and, for one story, Ali’s brother Frank, who later dies). at different stages in the characters’ lives. Naturally, this structure means that quite a lot is missed out; but the overall effect is of a gradual accretion of detail — not necessarily of plot detail, but of emotional detail — that builds up a portrait of the family.
(One technical gripe: Tender is presented as a single entity — no details of original publication are given, and the author’s acknowledgements page suggest that he has revised at least some of the stories for this volume — yet some later ‘chapters’ describe past events in detail more appropriate to stand-alone stories than the format of the present book.)
One of the most impressive things about Tender is the way that Mark Illis gives equal weight to all four of his protagonists. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, I don’t think, to anticipate the book to portray certain of the Daxes more fully than one or two of the others; but it’s not so — all of them feel equally rounded at all stages of their lives — even Frank, in his brief appearance. It’s fascinating to see the characters from both the inside and outside, and how they change subtly over time.
What sorts of moments, then, does Illis give us? Ali, single, dreaming of swimming the Channel and then, twenty-five years later, discovering it’s not what she hoped, and neither is her life. On holiday for the couple’s first anniversary, Bill tying himself in mental knots over what — indeed, whether — to think about the handsome American that he and Ali have met, and the pretty young woman who flirted with Bill. The teenage Sean wondering what to do with his life, and using a stray horse he comes across as a focus for his hopes. Rosa’s habit of listing three things that she’d like to happen, and how these change poignantly between the ages of thirteen, seventeen, and twenty-two.
I am not sure how well the stories in Tender would fare if read in isolation; but it hardly matters, because they’re best appreciated as a whole. One closes the book feeling that its author has observed and articulated something true about life. Well worth reading.