Fig Tree £16.99
Family Album, By Penelope Lively
Welcome to Allersmead, Middle England, where a dark secret lies behind the respectable facade
Sunday 16 August 2009
Penelope Lively's new novel takes us deep into familiar Lively country: the outwardly calm English middle (or thereabouts) classes where appearances are, of course, deceptive. Sinister rumbles reverberate beneath the home-grown vegetables, jolly birthdays, named mugs and children's games from the very first chapter.
Charles, a chilly, distant writer, and Alison, a manic housewife and "earth mother" in permanent overdrive, raise their six children – Paul, Gina, Sandra, Roger, Katie and Clare – at Allersmead, a large Edwardian house with a persona and values of its own, rather in the manner of Wuthering Heights, Howards End or Willow Court in Adèle Geras's 2003 novel, Facing the Light. Allersmead, "which has experienced around 43,000 days since first it rose from the mud of a late Victorian building site" packs a "smothering embrace".
The last member of the family is the inscrutable Ingrid, who arrived years earlier from somewhere in Scandinavia as an au pair and stays for the rest of her life as second mother, gardener, general factotum and latterly, when Alison starts running cookery classes, as Alison's PA. "Like most people," Lively tells us, "they know one another inside out, and not at all." Tolstoy's dictum that all happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion springs to mind.
Most of the story is set in the 1980s and told through flashbacks, as the adult children, one by one, visit or make contact with each other or with a "home" from which most have moved a long way. Gina is a globe- trotting TV documentary-maker. Sandra is a fashion and home-décor designer living in Italy. Roger is a doctor in Canada. Clare is a professional dancer in a Paris-based company. Katie lives in the US.
Only Paul, his mother's overt favourite, the drifter with a criminal record and a history of drugs and rehab, is back at Allersmead. Such a diaspora is evidently something to do with the shared childhood, the cellar games and the unspoken open secret which lies at the heart of this family. It is significant, too, that none of the six has children yet, and in some cases there's a determination not to.
Gina brings her new partner, Philip, to Allersmead and tries to explain to him what her childhood was really like with a mother who, with hindsight, was so deeply unhappy that she rarely spoke naturally. Almost every time Alison speaks, Lively uses the word "cries" to denote her excited, habitually feigned enthusiasm. Clare, meanwhile, talks to an incredulous gay dancer colleague about why she is different from her siblings. Katie and Roger, always close, chat to each other about the past as Lively gradually unravels what really happened using a rather bitty narrative technique which could be called "mixed methods" and usually works, but creaks in places. Multiple viewpoints are presented sometimes in the first person and sometimes the third, and without any obvious links or explanations, although there are some deft cliff-hangers. The blend of past and present tense is a bit odd, too.
Once an event changes things for ever at the end of the novel, Lively speeds up the action by hopping into epistolary mode as everyone frantically emails everyone else, and the novel ends, rather neatly, with an estate agent's description of Allersmead so that at last you can visualise it accurately and dispassionately rather than through the mists of memory.
Family Album is a very readable, well-paced novel peopled with Lively's customary immaculately observed and impeccably rounded characters. But as for the family's "dark secret", I'm afraid the reader sees it coming a mile off.
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 UK weather: Snow to fall in the coming week with sub-zero temperatures to last until early February
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
- 4 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
- 5 SAG Awards: Fake applause track interrupts Reese Witherspoon
Mr Selfridge series 3: Actress Kara Tointon says 'we're starting to see his demise'
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after Wembley Stadium rant
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Game of Thrones season 5: IMAX releases new trailer with first look footage of Tyrion Lannister
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
George Galloway condemns 'racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag' Charlie Hebdo at freedom of speech rally