Fig Tree £16.99

Family Album, By Penelope Lively

Welcome to Allersmead, Middle England, where a dark secret lies behind the respectable facade

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn