Family Album, By Penelope Lively

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The Independent Culture

Penelope Lively's story of the Allersmead family – Allersmead is the house, not their name, but they are so identified with the house that they never need a surname – is told by its various members, including Swedish au pair Ingrid, who came one day and never left.

It is intriguing, but seems to be missing something at its heart. Lively does what she can to centre it, with the somewhat clichéd patriarch Charles, who writes anthropological books while remaining distinctly less than fascinated by his own brood, and the earth-mother Alison, who has brought six children into the world. Or has she? I couldn't decide if daughter Gina's boyfriend Paul had given something away when he says "There was one family of five at my school": does Paul know that the youngest, Clare, is not, strictly speaking, a daughter of Allersmead?

Lively is exploring more than just the importance of progeniture here; she is exploring all sorts of notions of what we bequeath the world, whether through the disappointing first-born, who has failed to live up to his scholarly father's expectations, or in Alison's absorbing into her home of all who pass through it.