Narrator stays mum on the pathetic fallacy

HEAT WAVE by Penelope Lively Viking pounds 16

Reading this book in suddenly-arrived springtime, I remembered what I'd forgotten: the voluptuous fullness and greenness of Maytime in rural England, how the landscape unclenches. As Penelope Lively's novel moves towards its melodramatic climax in high summer, it similarly evokes the dangerous abandonment produced by endless days of shimmering heat. The pathetic fallacy is suitably invoked: jealous passions brew and rage simmers then boils over as the heat-wave goes relentlessly on. This being an English rural landscape, it's loud with the sounds of agribusiness. The monster machines controlling the crop are metaphors, perhaps, for the characters' attempts to dominate, even hurt, each other.

A traditional tale of adultery and betrayal spiced with middle-class anxieties about social change is given a newish spin by being narrated from the point of view of the mother concerned to protect, then revenge, her wronged daughter. Portraits of passionate mother-daughter love being rare in our literature, you might expect this one to be rendered in an original way, to be written in prose expressing the freshness of the theme. What a disappointment to discover that Pauline, the champion of the betrayed Teresa, recounts her story in language that is plodding and dull. Pauline works as a freelance editor, we are told, busily correcting authors' grammatical mistakes, removing their cliches, kindly pointing out their transgressions of the rules of punctuation. Narrating her own tale, she's clearly on sabbatical, a fan of worn-out phrases, a lover of stating the obvious. Real life, Pauline must contemptuously think, unlike the fantasy novel she is editing as the book opens, does not require searching out, discovering and struggling with, but can simply be taken for granted, flatly recounted, dependent on common-sense notions of one event conventionally succeeding another. The author does not seem to notice, or to care, that Pauline's observations are made to seem so irritatingly trite. What a waste of a wonderful theme.

The problem is to do with omniscient narration. Mother knows best, the conventional wisdom goes. So Pauline, in her summer cottage, spies on her daughter's menage in the cottage next door, and very soon disapprovingly finds that all is not well. Her daughter Teresa's husband Maurice is a cardboard villain we have to greet with boos and hisses while never understanding how the sweetly passive Teresa came to marry him at all. Perhaps he is wonderful in bed. The young couple's bedroom is the only place Pauline can't snoop into, though she manages to catch out her son-in-law fondling his new mistress a couple of times. Pauline comes across as morally superior to the horrid Maurice, to her ex-husband who behaved to her in just the same way, and also to her daughter, who tries to pretend ignorance of her beastly spouse's goings-on. Pauline, in her infallible wisdom and with her superior knowledge, can't tolerate this. She dishes out blame and punishment like an Old Testament God-figure.

Boiling away under the bland surface of this novel you sense the possible existence of another kind of language altogether, one far more passionate and anguished, that has been repressed in favour of plain and comfortable storytelling that won't upset anyone. Just as the pair of cottages where most of the action takes place is semi-detached, so you sense that Pauline does not view her daughter as separate at all. She sees Teresa simply as a version of her younger self. She wishes to rescue her only in order to make reparation to her own former wounded self. Teresa is merely her own face in the mirror. Pauline's omniscient gaze denies Teresa's autonomous and sexual identity. Now this is the nuts and bolts truth of their relationship. What a pity Penelope Lively did not tackle the story of mother-daughter love that includes struggle between them. Then her novel would have come subversively alive.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own