Family Album by Penelope Lively

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For Alison Harper, resplendent in her Laura Ashley smocks, childbirth is a doddle: "All right, it hurt a bit, but not that much, none of hers had taken long, just a final hour or so of ouch! and heave, and there you were with the dear little bundle?"

In fact Alison is such a professional earth mother that she and her writer husband, Charles, have knocked out six children. Just as well that they have Allersmead, a slightly scruffy Victorian pile in the suburbs, big enough for all of them, and of course Ingrid, the Swedish aupair who never leaves.

To outsiders, the Allersmead clan appear enviably content. Alison fills the house with the smells of her Seventies cuisine (coq au vin, ratatouille) and will tell anyone who'll listen this is "real old-fashioned family life – you can't beat it." Meanwhile sourpuss Charles occasionally emerges from his study to have a go at fatherhood, but quickly returns to his work, including an anthropological tome on childhood. Yet as we're introduced to the children as adults, it becomes clear that as in most families, there have been casualties en route.

The eldest indulged son, Paul, who still lives at home, battles with an addiction problem and flits from one part-time job to the next. Gina, through whose eyes much of the novel is filtered, has become a successful TV journalist, but like younger sister, Sandra, a property developer, hasn't settled down. Katie has married an American, Clare is a ballet dancer and Roger, a paediatrician in Toronto. The hordes of grandchildren Alison once fondly imagined simply do not exist.

With great lightness of narrative touch, Lively's novel rummages through each child's memories of their informative years. Although everyone has a different version of events there are a few seminal family moments on which all are agreed: the terrible time when some mystery person tore up Charles's work-in-progress; the accident at Gina's eighth birthday party; and the last days of the children's "cellar game". But as Roger points out, reflecting on a particularly miserable teenage holiday: "So who's right? Who sees it all?"

In a distinguished Booker-Prize winning career, Lively's fiction and non-fiction has long been preoccupied with the presence of the past, memories, and the homes they're made in. Now, in her mid-seventies, she has arguably written her most engaging and readable novel to date. Unlike younger novelists busy reprising their Cold War childhoods, Lively is able to take the long view of a very English kind of upbringing and family dynamic. While some of her more middle-class period pieces have verged on the oppressive, here her creations prove sillier, nastier and more human than ever before.

Comments