Among the Hedges

Sara Mesa is a Spanish writer whose work is becoming increasingly available in English: her fourth novel Scar was translated in 2017, followed by Four by Four in 2020 and Among the Hedges (by her third translator in three books, Megan McDowell) in 2021. It is a short novel which tells of the relationship between a thirteen-year-old girl and a man in his fifties, a secret relationship which appears superficially uncomfortable and even dangerous but develops into something like a genuine friendship.

The relationship begins ‘among the hedges’ as that is where the narrator (who is christened ‘Soon’ as she will soon be fourteen) goes to hide when she should be at school, her “little hideout in the hedges:”

“Once inside, between the hedge and the tree, all she has to do is sit down and no one can see her, not even someone who passes very close by – as long as they don’t peer over.”

It is a safe space for her, and a space outside the social rules which would make her relationship with the “old man” inappropriate, a place in which she has put herself outside the rules of society by skipping school. Her first fear when the man discovers her hiding place is that he will also discover her truancy and report her. Soon’s avoidance of school is largely down to how she feels about herself as she enters adolescence:

“She usually wears sports clothes a couple sizes too big. The changes in her body embarrass her, and she tries to hide them.”

A comment from a ‘friend’ – that her body is like a marshmallow – has stuck with her, and she dislikes the fact that all the girls in her class have boyfriends, “like it’s in fashion.” She also mentions that she “started to feel bad when her brother left her:”

“Her brother said he loved her, but it wasn’t true, because he left unapologetically, claiming that he had to go.”

Although she says that one of the worst things about school is the group work as “the only thing she wants… is to be left alone,” she is clearly lonely, and the Old Man (as she calls him), however strange he might be, alleviates that loneliness. He, too, as is quickly obvious, is a lonely character. Even his appearance is unusual as he always wears a suit – except for one occasion when it is getting cleaned and he turns up in “jeans that are too big for him” – the clothes of a friend who killed himself. He has two interests which make up almost all his conversation: birds and Nina Simone:

“He’s always been like that, he says, stubborn and obsessive. If he likes a thing, he really likes it!”

His genuine enthusiasm for these topics sparks an interest in Soon, and he teaches her about Simone’s life and how to recognise bird calls. She appreciates his way of “situating himself at her level and not prying, so unlike other adults.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Old Man has a history of mental illness and trauma which is slowly revealed to Soon and the reader, though, rather than suggest this makes him dangerous, it emphasises his innocence.

Soon and Old Man are two lonely misfits (in Soon’s case this is a temporary state created by adolescence, in Old Man’s it is more permanent) who relieve each other’s isolation. Their relationship is threatened by society’s perception, not only from without but also from within:

“She intuits that Old Man is poor but loves to imagine him as a rich old man; she intuits that he is harmless, but if she wants to get somewhere with this, she has to imagine him as dangerous. She can’t end up without a story to tell.”

In a sense, Soon does what Mesa does not, writes the story society expects, and so creates a ‘realistic’ conclusion which is not true. In doing so the novel further highlights the lack of understanding which society offers those who are different in any way, or do not feel like they fit in. Mesa has the final word, however, with a brief second part where the importance of the relationship is re-established. Among the Hedges is a novel which consistently refuses to bow to society’s expectations and therefore challenges the reader to examine their own. It is a wonderful example of how minimalism in setting and character can be used to question how we see the world.


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One Response to “Among the Hedges”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds brilliant, Grant, especially as it plays with our expectations about how this kind of relationship would be.

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